The Republican Party suffered a major erosion among suburban voters in the Midwest and Northeast in Tuesday's presidential election, continuing a slide that began four years ago and that threatens the party's hopes of bouncing back quickly from two consecutive defeats at the hands of President Clinton.

Clinton carried or substantially narrowed the traditional Republican advantage in key suburban counties with campaign themes targeted in particular at suburban women. The results deepened a potentially serious problem for the GOP that began four years ago, when many industrial state, suburban Republicans and independents defected to third party candidate Ross Perot rather than support then-President George Bush for reelection.

Last Tuesday, Perot's support declined dramatically in many of those suburbs, but the GOP vote showed little improvement, with many of those former Perot voters appearing to have stayed home or to have supported Clinton, according to a preliminary analysis of exit polls and a review of county-by-county results.

Republican nominee Robert J. Dole "failed to touch the issues that mattered in these states," said Mark Penn, Clinton's pollster for the 1996 campaign. "Republicans failed to address these family-oriented issues that we did, and these states were sensitive to the economy and did much better and the president had a strong economic record."

Robert Teeter, the Michigan-based pollster and strategist who ran Bush's 1992 campaign, said that for the "short-term" the GOP falloff in the suburbs is "a serious problem." Whether it becomes a longer term problem, he said, depends on his party's ability to recapture moderately conservative suburban voters who have found Democratic appeals increasingly attractive.

The president won a number of key suburban counties in the industrial states that have been off-limits to Democrats for many years, including Macomb County in Michigan, home of the Reagan Democrats, which a Democratic nominee had not won since 1968. Perhaps even more telling was that Clinton captured neighboring Oakland County, a staunchly Republican enclave that had not supported a Democrat since 1964.

The same pattern held true throughout the states that in past elections were considered the prized battlegrounds of presidential elections. In New Jersey, Clinton carried Bergen and Monmouth counties, both of which Bush won in 1988 and in 1992. In Ohio, the president carried Lake County, east of Cleveland, which Bush won in both his campaigns. In Pennsylvania, Clinton expanded his victory margins of four years ago in three counties surrounding Philadelphia: Montgomery, Bucks and Delaware. Bush carried all three in 1988.

Even in the suburban counties that he lost, Clinton showed dramatic improvement over past performance. One striking -- but not isolated -- example came in DuPage County in Illinois, the biggest of the Republican suburban "collar counties" around Chicago. Eight years ago, Bush won DuPage with a margin of about 123,600 votes and in 1992 he won the county with a margin of 63,700 votes. On Tuesday, Dole carried DuPage, but his margin was just 35,000 votes.

Republican analysts sifting through Tuesday's returns offered a variety of possible explanations for what happened in the northern state suburbs. The overwhelming assumption is that the huge gender gap that affected the overall results was especially devastating in suburban areas. "As opposed to saying it's a suburban problem, it may be more isolated to gender," said GOP pollster and strategist Bill McInturff.

In the Midwest, Dole won suburban men by 48 percent to 38 percent but lost suburban women 50 percent to 41 percent, according to exit polls by Voter News Service. In the East, Clinton won both groups but did far better with women. Eastern suburban men supported the president 46 percent to 39 percent, while eastern suburban women gave Clinton a 57 percent to 34 percent majority over Dole.

Several Republicans said Dole's problems went beyond gender to his inability to relate to younger suburban families, even those who are registered Republican. They argued that a new generation of GOP candidates will be able to solve that problem. Another factor hurting Republicans, they said, is that the growing southern strength within the GOP may be creating a backlash among northern voters, particularly moderates and independents in the suburbs.

Clinton's ability to sharply reduce Republican margins in these more affluent suburban areas helped to give him double-digit victories in four of the six big northern states: Illinois, Michigan, New York and New Jersey. Aided by suburban voters, Clinton expanded his margins from four years ago in those states as well as in Ohio, traditionally the state most favorable to Republican presidential candidates.

The only big state in which the pattern did not hold was Pennsylvania, where Clinton actually won by a smaller overall margin this time than in his first race, in part because he suffered erosion in his support in the urban and suburban counties in the Pittsburgh area. Tony Podesta, who ran the Clinton-Gore campaign in the state, attributed the decline in western Pennsylvania to concern over Clinton's veto of the bill banning certain late-term abortions and other issues such as gun control.

"We were getting Republicans in the Philadelphia suburbs to vote for us because of the Brady bill and assault weapons and choice," he said. "And we were losing them in the southwestern suburban ring {on the same issues}."

Four years ago, Republicans blamed their suburban erosion on Perot. But the county-by-county results from Tuesday demonstrate dramatically that a smaller Perot vote this year did not help the GOP rebound in the suburban areas.

In Oakland County, Mich., for example, Perot captured 95,000 votes in 1992 while Bush's vote there dropped by 41,000 over 1988. Last Tuesday, Perot's vote total fell to 36,600. But Dole's total fell by an additional 22,500 votes, from the 242,000 Bush won in 1992 to 219,500 votes. Clinton, meanwhile, continued the pattern of a growing Democratic vote in the county, which has now risen from 175,000 in 1988 to 215,000 in 1992 and 241,000 on Tuesday.

Most Republicans agreed that winning back the votes of women would help reverse the party's suburban slide, but they said it will take a new generation of candidates to do it.

"The problem for the Republicans in the suburbs is generational," said Karl Rove, chief strategist for Republican Gov. George W. Bush (Tex.). "Bob Dole is an authentic American hero and he was unable to bridge that gap. People in their thirties and forties could not relate to him. They didn't feel he understood where they were and what their problems were."

But with the GOP increasingly dominated by its southern and western wings, there is also a question whether the party has grown more culturally distant from moderate voters in the northern industrial states. Teeter said the Republicans can't let their southern strategy block GOP presidential candidates in the Northeast and Midwest.

"Inherent in the assumption {of a growing southern block within the party} was that we would carry big portions of the Northeast and Midwest, particularly suburban areas," he said. "You can't lose those. . . . Either you take a conservative northerner . . . who wins in the North and wins the suburban vote and then is still ideologically good enough to win in the South, or you nominate a southerner who is moderate enough to come North again."

Fred Steeper, another Michigan-based GOP strategist, said that while the party's "center of gravity has moved South and West . . . we shouldn't have to give up on {the Northeast} and we always want to be competitive in the industrial Midwest. But the strategy for getting those states has to exclude the strategy of moderating our cultural conservatism, because that is a strength."

McInturff also said Republicans will do better at bridging the regional and ideological divisions within the party with a generation of candidates who are used to dealing with such differences. "There are a lot of Republicans in line who are used to holding different parts of the coalition together. I would not say we're not capable of doing that. But you have to have a better year and a better feel for doing that than candidates from the prior generation have had."