Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton was elected the 42nd president of the United States yesterday in a sweeping electoral victory that ended 12 years of Republican rule in the White House and restored one-party government in Washington.

Clinton, 46, exploited dissatisfaction with the economy and a broad desire for change to break the Republican lock on the electoral college. He captured states from Maine to Colorado to California to turn President Bush out of office after one term, just 20 months after Bush's triumph in the Persian Gulf War.

Texas independent Ross Perot, whose campaign shook the political rafters this year, ran third in what appeared to be the strongest performance by a third-party candidate since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912.

With several contests still too close to call early this morning, Clinton had captured 30 states and the District, for a total of 353 electoral votes, to 15 states and 132 electoral for the president. In the popular vote, Clinton was winning 43 percent, Bush 38 percent and Perot 19 percent.

Clinton won pluralities of voters in every age group and every level of education and won among all but the wealthiest Americans, reclaiming many of the voters who abandoned the Democratic Party for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and bringing young voters into the Democratic fold for the first time in more than a decade.

But with Perot splitting the anti-Bush vote, Clinton won the presidency with less than 50 percent of the popular vote, making him the first minority president since Richard M. Nixon in 1968.

Clinton, who showed remarkable resilience in winning the Democratic nomination through last spring's primaries and ran a shrewd campaign that kept the Republicans off-balance throughout the fall, claimed his victory before a chanting, cheering crowd of supporters gathered outside the Old State House building in Little Rock, Ark., where he announced his candidacy in October 1991.

Joined by running mate Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (Tenn.), their wives and children, Clinton said: "On this day, with high hopes and brave hearts . . . the American people have voted to make a new beginning. This election is a clarion call for our country to face the challenges of the end of the Cold War and beginning of the next century."

Calling on the country to heal its wounds, Clinton said, "You all spoke with equal voices for change. And tomorrow we will try to give you that." He promised "a new patriotism to lift up our people" and pledged "a reunited states" and an administration committed to "people who work hard and play by the rules."

Gore told the Little Rock crowd: "Bill Clinton won because he was willing to lose. He stuck to his beliefs. He asked for your vote by challenging you to make America better. Where I come from, we have a name for that. It's called character."

Clinton's victory speech came shortly after midnight Eastern time, but the pumped-up winner was still going strong more than three hours later, speaking to various gatherings of supporters on the biggest night of Democratic celebrations since 1976.

Bush conceded defeat about 11:15 p.m., shortly after calling Clinton on the telephone to congratulate him. In a gracious concession statement to his supporters in Houston, Bush said: "Here's the way I see it. . . . The people have spoken, and we respect the majesty of the democratic system."

"Our entire administration will work closely with his team to ensure the smooth transition of power. . . . America must always come first. So we will get behind this new president, and wish him well. . . . And now I ask that we stand behind our new president."

Perot was the first of the three candidates to appear last night, conceding to Clinton about 10:30 p.m., even before the networks had projected Clinton as the winner and before the polls had closed on the West Coast.

With his supporters chanting "'96, '96," Perot told his allies to "team up and try to make it work now." He told his supporters they had sent a "laser-like message" that had "changed the country."

Clinton and Gore campaigned as representatives of a new breed of moderate Democrats and presented themselves as a break from past policies soundly rejected in the last three elections. Their victory represents the most significant generational shift in power since John F. Kennedy defeated Nixon in 1960.

In his victory speech, Clinton, the third youngest president in history, promised to bring "a new Democratic Party" to Washington, and as the first member of the baby boom generation to win the presidency, he will face daunting domestic problems and an electorate eager for action.

Despite the clear mandate for change expressed by the voters yesterday and the honeymoon he is likely to enjoy as a new president, Clinton's challenge may be complicated by the fact that his popular vote victory was much smaller than his electoral sweep suggested.

Clinton captured an absolute majority of the vote in five states, plus the District, and was winning less than 45 percent of the vote in 35 states, based on incomplete returns.

But the results were even bleaker for Republicans, as Bush fell below 40 percent of the popular vote in 32 states, plus the District. Perot's self-financed, grass-roots candidacy was winning at least 20 percent of the popular vote in 31 states.

With long lines reported at many polling places, there was anecdotal evidence that an electorate that had expressed disgust with the gridlock in Washington and felt alienated from the political process may have turned out in numbers high enough to reverse the almost relentless decline in voter participation over the past three decades.

The voters who surged to the polls yesterday came with an agenda for change. For more than a year, Clinton and his rivals for the Democratic nomination campaigned against the economic policies that Reagan and Bush brought to the country in 1980. Clinton's war room in Little Rock carried a sign that summed up what the campaign was about: "It's the economy, stupid." Yesterday, a strong majority of voters rejected Bush and what Clinton and Perot derided as "trickle-down economics."

Another sign of the voters' desire to shake up the status quo came in a series of states where there were referendums on the ballot to limit the terms of federal officeholders. Voters enacted term limits in all 14 states where they were on the ballot, most by lopsided margins.

In congressional races, many endangered incumbents won reelection, suggesting that predictions that an anti-incumbent mood would dominate the election were overstated. Sens. Robert W. Kasten Jr. (R-Wis.), Terry Sanford (D-N.C.), and John Seymour (R-Calif.) were the only three defeated, with two other races not decided.

But the election brought substantial changes to Congress, thanks in part to record retirements this year. The voters elected four additional women to the Senate, all Democrats, including the first black woman in history, Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, and two female senators from California, former San Francisco mayor Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Barbara Boxer, in another first. And in House races, the Republicans scored unexpected gains, picking up 20 to 25 seats.

With the Democrats retaining control of the House and Senate, Clinton will preside without a decisive popular mandate but with clear evidence that voters want a break with the status quo and the strength in Washington to break the deadlock of divided government that has frustrated voters and politicians alike for much of the past decade.

Clinton promised to "put people first" with an economic program that called for increased government spending to rebuild the country's roads and bridges, tax incentives for business and for a revamped national health care system that would control costs and provide coverage to all Americans. At the same time, Clinton called for higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans and foreign corporations, with a modest tax cut for the middle class.

Driven by the voters' economic anxieties, Clinton swept hard-hit New England, only the second Democrat in this century to do so. He won New Hampshire, breaking the jinx that says no candidate who loses that state's primary goes on to win the presidency. Clinton also won two states Bush has called home: Connecticut, where the president grew up, and Maine, where he has a vacation home.

Clinton and Gore rolled through the big states of the East and Midwest, capturing New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Missouri.

They also cracked the Republican grip on the Rocky Mountain West, winning New Mexico and Colorado, then swept the Pacific Coast, including the biggest prize of the night, California.

Bush won such traditional GOP bastions as Indiana, the home state of Vice President Quayle, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, Utah and Idaho. In the South, the region that formed part of the GOP base throughout the 1980s, Bush won Texas, Virginia, North Carolina Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina. He lost Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas to the Democrats and by early this morning held narrow leads in Georgia and Florida.

The impact of the economy was clear from the results last night. About four in 10 voters cited the economy as among the top two issues affecting their vote, and Clinton was winning an absolute majority of those voters.

The worse voters saw their own financial situation, the more strongly they supported Clinton. Two-thirds of those who saw themselves in worse shape financially than in 1988 supported the Democratic ticket, with about one in five backing Perot. Only about one in 10 favored the president. Only those who saw themselves as better off than four years ago strongly supported Bush.

Almost four in 10 voters said their desire for change was one of the top two influences on them, with Clinton capturing three in five of those votes. He also won a strong majority among the quarter of the electorate who cited the candidates' plans for the country as the reason for their decision.

Clinton arrived back in Little Rock about 11 a.m. yesterday after a 29-hour marathon that took him to nine cities in eight states. He went directly to the Dunbar Community Center to cast his ballot, then returned to the governor's mansion to rest. Gore and his wife, Tipper, flew into Little Rock yesterday afternoon to join the Clintons.

Bush arrived in Houston Monday night for a final rally. After a morning jog, he went to vote and ran a few errands, expressing confidence that he would win. He appeared cheerful and upbeat, but called the campaign "certainly probably the most unpleasant year of my life."

By the time he appeared before his supporters, Bush had known for hours he was likely to lose, brought the news by White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker III, who spent the past three decades bringing his friend Bush good news and bad through campaigns and crises. Baker introduced the president with a tension-breaking joke about the closeness of the final results at a time things looked even bleaker than they would end up.

Bush aides said the president had spent the early evening hours trying to lift spirits of his friends and family. "The president was the person, as usual, who kept everyone else strong, as he has as long as I've known him," said Robert A. Mosbacher, the former commerce secretary who became Bush's campaign general chairman and then major fund-raiser.

Clinton's victory was a sweet triumph for a candidate nearly given up for dead last winter on the eve of the New Hampshire primary. His staff oftened credited Clinton's determination as a candidate for his survival, but Clinton took time last night to thank his "brilliant, aggressive, unconventional campaign staff" that had guided his operation with a skill that drew praise even from the Republicans.

When the speeches were over, Gore reached down from the stage to hug James Carville, who directed Clinton's day-to-day strategy from the Little Rock headquarters.

Quayle offered these words of praise to Clinton in his own concession speech. "He ran a tough campaign," Quayle said. "If he runs the country as well as he ran his campaign, we'll be all right."

Staff writer John E. Yang in Houston and researcher Mark Stencel contributed to this report.