WASHINGTON -- The high-stakes congressional election in Virginia this week offered some valuable political lessons even though many said the contest probably was not a bellwether for future campaigns in the fierce battle for control of Congress.
Republican Randy Forbes defeated Democrat Louise Lucas on Tuesday in the race for Virginia's 4th congressional district. The race between the two state senators in southeastern Virginia was a surprisingly close battle that captured the attention of the nation's political establishment, inspired an intense voter turnout effort and cost the parties more than $5 million.
Top GOP leaders -- several of whom were from Virginia -- hailed the victory as an endorsement of Bush administration policies like the huge tax cut the president just signed and his proposed changes in Social Security. Democrats said it was purely a local race with a determined campaign and get-out-the-vote effort.
The truth probably lies somewhere in between.
Some lessons from the swing district in the Virginia Tidewater region:
n Democrats showed again that they can motivate high turnout among black voters, who came out in dramatic numbers to support Lucas, a black state senator. That kind of turnout helped Southern Democrats win several surprising victories in 1998.
n Republicans demonstrated they can turn out votes just as impressively when they need to, not just rely on a barrage of advertising.
n Democrats still have trouble attracting votes of whites in rural areas -- a problem clearly illustrated in the 2000 presidential election.
n President Bush may have slipped a bit in the polls recently, but not enough to cost Republicans a congressional election in a swing district.
''A candidate like Forbes could never have won this race if Bush had lost a lot of ground,'' said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. ''Forbes is not a dynamo, and he doesn't carry a lot of baggage. He is Republican Everyman.''
Republicans will continue to cause problems for Democrats when they can blur the distinction between the parties, said Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. ''It's up to us to define the difference.''
Democrats were able to finish close -- 52 percent to 48 percent -- after polls had shown Lucas behind by nearly 10 points.
''I don't see this as any kind of decisive verdict,'' Sabato said.
Voters split largely along racial lines, according to analysts who have looked at the precincts. In a district with a 39 percent black population, Lucas didn't get quite enough support from whites to overtake Forbes.
The main lesson from Virginia for political analyst Charlie Cook was the intense level of competition likely in every swing congressional district in 2002.
''The money, the resources, the time, the get-out-the-vote operation -- where there are competitive races there's going to be hand-to-hand combat,'' Cook said.
Republicans have a 12-seat lead in the 435-member House, meaning that even a small shift in the 2002 election could tilt the balance of power.
''It reinforces the level of parity between the parties,'' said political analyst Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution.
Virginia's 4th district went narrowly for Bill Clinton in 1992 and narrowly for George W. Bush in 2000, Sabato said. Rep. Norman Sisisky, a conservative Democrat, had held the seat for 18 years before he died in March.
The national parties are likely to make a major commitment in competitive districts around the country. But Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Gilmore, the Virginia governor, acknowledged it was unlikely many districts would get the amount of interest -- and money -- lavished on southeastern Virginia this year.
Republicans are claiming they'll get eight to 10 new seats favoring their party after the complex and lengthy process of congressional redistricting takes place. Democrats say the process is likely to result in an even split and remind that the party out of power often gains ground in an election year when the president is not running.
In the meantime, both sides do their utmost to put the best light on things.
''Republicans tend to turn out their voters better in special elections than we do,'' said Rep. Martin Frost, a Texas Democrat. ''There were special elections that we lost prior to November of 1996 and November of 1998, but in both of those cycles we picked up seats.''
EDITOR'S NOTE -- Will Lester covers polling and politics for The Associated Press.
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