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Democrats score early wins, anticipate big gains in power

WASHINGTON—Democrats captured a coveted Senate seat in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, an early landmark victory in their bid to gain power in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives and change the country's course.

Democratic challenger Bob Casey Jr. was declared the winner over Republican Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a one-time conservative icon who'd hoped to run for the presidency. Next door, incumbent Republican Sen. Mike DeWine lost to challenger U.S. Rep. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat.

Democrats also held one of their most endangered Senate seats, as Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey fought off allegations of corruption and defeated Republican Tom Kean Jr., the son of a popular former governor.

In another sign of trouble for Republicans, this one in the House, Democrat Brad Ellsworth defeated Republican Rep. John Hostettler in a solidly Republican district in Indiana. Hostettler was a leader among the social conservatives who came to power in the Republican takeover of the House in 1994.

In yet another striking gain, the Democrats won the governor's office in Ohio for the first time in 20 years. Democratic U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland defeated Republican Secretary of State Ken Blackwell to seize the governor's office being vacated by Republican Gov. Bob Taft.

The Ohio statehouse was a coveted prize in a state that could be as important to the 2008 presidential campaign as it was when it put George W. Bush over the top for a second term in 2004. A Democrat hasn't been elected governor of Ohio since 1986.

Early results also showed a razor's-edge election for a pivotal Senate seat in Virginia, where incumbent Republican Sen. George Allen fought both allegations of racism and a tough challenge from Democrat James Webb, who was Ronald Reagan's Navy secretary and based his campaign on opposing the war in Iraq.

At stake Tuesday:

_All 435 seats in the U.S. House, where Democrats needed to gain 15 seats to take control for the first time since 1994.

_Thirty-three seats in the Senate, where Democrats needed to gain six to take control for the first time since 2002.

_Thirty-six governors' offices, where Republicans entered the election with a 22-14 edge, including control of the four biggest states, California, Florida, New York and Texas, plus Ohio.

Voting problems were reported at scattered sites around the country, as millions faced new voting machines bought to alleviate problems like the ones that turned the 2000 presidential election in Florida into a mess.

Software glitches and unfamiliarity with the machines caused unusually long lines in several states, including Illinois, South Carolina and Tennessee.

In Colorado, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill Ritter waited an hour and 40 minutes at his precinct. He called the long line "heartening" because, he said, it signaled passionate devotion to democracy.

There also were reports of some voters being intimidated or harassed.

The Department of Justice had 850 poll watchers in 22 states watching for signs of discrimination or other efforts to interfere with voting.

The two major political parties also had attorneys and poll watchers around the country. The AFL-CIO sent poll watchers to Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Washington.

Republicans warned of the threat of vote fraud through the day, citing reports of double voting and the loss of computer activation cards in Tennessee. They also cited fraudulent registration cards filed in Colorado, Missouri, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Republican-friendly talk radio echoed the complaints.

"There have been some reports about attempted voter fraud, and certainly we hope any and all voter fraud in any way is detected and dealt with before Election Day," White House spokesman Tony Snow said Tuesday.

He added, however, that it would be wrong for people "to manufacture complaints with the idea of trying to cast doubts on the efficiency and the efficacy of the system."

Democrats started the day warning of problems, then backed off as the day went on. Democratic National Committee aide Mark Paustenbach said at about 3 p.m. that there'd been "ongoing sporadic reports of machine failures in some states, but problems have overwhelmingly been resolved and voting has continued successfully. ... Things look good for voters."

President Bush watched the returns in the second-floor residence of the White House with longtime friend Brad Freeman and political aide Karl Rove.

In a footnote to the Bush presidency, Tuesday's elections defeated the two state secretaries of state who oversaw controversial election decisions that helped Bush: Blackwell, whose rulings benefited Bush in 2004, and former Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, whose actions helped Bush in 2000.

Harris was defeated in a bid for a U.S. Senate seat from Florida.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., also watched the returns from Washington, where she awaited both the fate of her party and the birth of a grandchild. Pelosi would become the first female speaker of the House if Democrats win the House and second in line of succession to the presidency, behind Vice President Dick Cheney.

In many ways, Tuesday's voting was a referendum on Bush, an unpopular president leading an unpopular war.

He entered the final weekend of campaigning with an approval rating of 38 percent in the Gallup Poll, the lowest since Harry S. Truman had an approval rating of 36 percent in the fall of 1950. Truman's Democratic Party went on to lose the presidency two years later.

This year the Iraq war dominated the political landscape, despite Bush's early attempts to change the subject to the broader—and more politically popular—war on terror.

About six in 10 voters said Tuesday they didn't like the way Bush was doing his job. A similar percentage said they opposed the war, according to exit polls conducted by the television networks and the Associated Press.

Democrats didn't offer a clear alternative policy on Iraq, gambling that voters were sufficiently unhappy with the Republicans who started the war and have managed it since.

If Democrats ran against Bush this year, many Republicans ran away from him.

Candidates such as DeWine stressed their independence rather than their loyalty to party or president. And in one stark example that angered the White House on Monday, Bush flew to Florida this week to campaign specifically for Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist—only to find that Crist had left town to campaign by himself somewhere else.

Scandals also hurt Republicans: first, the tales of payoffs from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, then the still-evolving story of House Republican leaders failing to stop former Republican Rep. Mark Foley of Florida from sending inappropriate messages to teenagers working in the House.

About three out of four voters said Tuesday that scandals did influence how they voted—and that the news pushed them toward the Democrats.

Republicans had braced for losses for months. It's normal for a president's party to lose seats in the sixth year of a two-term presidency.

Over the last 100 years, the president's party has lost an average of 32 seats in the House and five in the Senate in such sixth-year elections.

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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