An article Thursday incorrectly reported David Bositis's title. He is senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, not the director. (Published 11/06/1999)

Republican party leaders, despite their success in gaining control of the Virginia legislature, were surprised by several losses in races Tuesday where they had spent heavily in a test run for the 2000 election.

The mixed results left both Republicans and Democrats in a bragging mood yesterday, reflecting the near-even strength of the two parties and pointing toward a fiercely competitive general election next year, when Democrats need to pick up only five seats to win control of the House of Representatives.

The race to replace a Republican governor in Mississippi remained a draw, with both candidates falling just short of the required 50 percent and apparently throwing the choice to the state House of Representatives, where Democrats hold an overwhelming majority. The loss of the seat held by Gov. Kirk Fordice, who was forced to retire by term limits, would put another big hole in the solid GOP South that Republicans had been steadily building before losing governorships last year in Alabama and South Carolina.

With all of Mississippi's precincts reporting but absentee ballots uncounted, the Democrat, Lt. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, held a 6,638-vote edge over former representative Mike Parker, who was a Democrat when he was in Congress but changed parties. An official result is due in about 10 days.

Tubby Harrison, Musgrove's pollster, said the election validated the Democrats' southern strategy of running moderate candidates who can still appeal to the party's base. "Mississippi shows that if you're a Democrat and not regarded as liberal on social issues, and you hit pocketbook issues, you can win," he said.

Republicans also lost some significant mayoral races, with Democrats succeeding in some traditionally Republican strongholds including Columbus, Ohio, and Indianapolis, and beating back a GOP challenge to win the mayor's office in Philadelphia.

Just six weeks ago, Jim Nicholson, the Republican national chairman, declared that retaining the mayor's office in Columbus, Ohio's largest city, was "critical" to the party's efforts next year.

But Columbus voters elected their first Democratic mayor in 27 years (choosing city council President Michael Coleman by 20 percentage points), at the same time that Indianapolis was picking its first Democratic mayor in 36 years (electing developer Bart Peterson by 10 percentage points).

The Columbus victory gave Democrats new hope of picking up the congressional seat held by Rep. John R. Kasich, who briefly sought the Republican presidential nomination instead of running for reelection. About half of Columbus is in Kasich's district.

The current Indianapolis mayor, Stephen Goldsmith, a Republican who did not seek reelection, is considered a guru in national conservative circles and is the chief domestic policy adviser to Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

"The fact that [Goldsmith] was succeeded by a Democrat has to have some of the Republicans scratching their heads," said David Bositis, director of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. "Why is their signature mayor being succeeded by a Democrat?"

In Philadelphia, Republicans had hoped to win the mayor's office despite Democrats' 4 to 1 registration advantage. Sam Katz, the Republican, picked up many crossover votes but still fell short and John Street, the Democrat, won by less than 1 percent of the vote.

In several races, including the contests for Mississippi governor and Columbus mayor, the Republican National Committee tested voter turnout programs it hopes to deploy in next year's presidential election. The RNC poured more than $630,000 into the Mississippi race in September alone.

Stuart Rothenberg, publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report, said the unexpected results were good news for Democrat Bill Bradley and Arizona Sen. John McCain (R), both of whom are rapidly gaining ground in their presidential races.

"Voters aren't simply swallowing the front-runners and going with the inevitable," he said. "They're carefully considering the candidates."

After a news conference trumpeting the Virginia victories--"the big enchilada," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.)--Nicholson conceded that the message from the elections was mixed. "We had our disappointments," he said. "But you have to look at the big picture--we're winning the war."

With moderate rhetoric dominating most of the major races, Nicholson and President Clinton both claimed the elections showed their parties were most in tune with voters.

"One consistent theme that does emerge from all these races is that if Democrats hope to survive, even in the urban strongholds, they've got to talk like Republicans," Nicholson said.

Six hours later, Clinton said in the Rose Garden, "In the places where the Republicans won, they won by running on education, on health care, on economic development, on progressive issues. . . ."

In another election Tuesday, San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown was forced into a Dec. 14 runoff after failing to garner a majority. His opponent will be either former mayor Frank Jordan or Board of Supervisors President Tom Ammiano, who ran a late-breaking but popular write-in campaign. Votes were still being counted yesterday.

Staff writers Charles Babington and Susan B. Glasser contributed to this report.

Ballot Initiatives

Results from some state and local ballot measures decided around the country Tuesday:

Place: Colorado

Issue: $2.3 billion bond issue for road construction.

Result: Passed

Place: Houston

Issue: $80 million bond issue for new Basketball-hockey arena.

Result: Failed

Place: Ketchum, Idaho

Issue: Keep tradition of mock six-gun shootout during Wagon Days festival (nonbinding).

Result: Passed

Place: Maine

Issue: Late-term abortion ban.

Result: Failed

Place: Maine

Issue: Medicinal marijuana.

Result: Passed

Place: Missoula, Mont.

Issue: increase minimum wage for city employees.

Result: Failed

Place: Mississippi

Issue: Term limits for state legislators.

Result: Failed

Place: Oregon

Issue: Allow 11 of 12 jurors to return guilty verdicts in murder trials.

Result: Failed

Place: San Francisco

Issue: ATM fees ban.

Result: Passed

Place: Washington state

Issue: Cut taxes/require voter approval of tax increases.

Result: Passed

Place: Washington state

Issue: Ban most commercial fishing nets.

Result: Failed

SOURCES: Associated Press, Initiative and Referendum Institute, state election boards

CAPTION: San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown was forced into a runoff election Dec. 14 against an undetermined opponent.