Nervous politicians put aside opinion polls and campaign strategies and watched voter turnout across the nation today for signs of winners and losers in the first midterm election of the 1990s.

Republicans, admitting that a low turnout would be bad news for their candidates in most states, exhorted their partisans to go to the polls. Democrats counted on uneasiness over the economy to induce their followers to vote.Voters were choosing 36 governors, 34 senators and the entire 435-member U.S. House as well as more than 6,000 state legislators. Normally obscure legislative races have gotten national attention from party officials battling for control of the once-in-a-decade redrawing of political boundary lines to conform to new census figures.

The stakes are highest in races for governor in the nation's fastest-growing states - California, Florida and Texas. When House seats are redistributed to follow population shifts to the Sun Belt, those three states will pick up a total of 14.

Edward J. Rollins, co-chairman of the House Republican campaign committee, said the recent debate over the federal budget "created a lot of disarray among Republicans and, obviously, if we don't do well, it'll be because Republicans don't participate in the process. Hopefully, they'll get angry at Democrats and turn out."

Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, predicted that about 36 percent of eligible Americans would go to the polls, about the same as in 1986 when turnout was the lowest in more than 40 years.

But Gans said participation would be higher in states with hot races.

In Florida, where Democrats were hopeful that former Sen. Lawton Chiles will unseat Republican Gov. Bob Martinez, election officials forecast a high turnout.

In California, Republicans were confident Sen. Pete Wilson would outpoll Democrat Dianne Feinstein in the race to succeed Republican Gov. George Deuk-me-jian.

After weeks of barnstorming on behalf of GOP candidates from Maine to Hawaii, President Bush concentrated on helping the faltering campaign of Clayton Williams for governor of Texas. Once far ahead in the polls, oilman Williams was struggling to outlast Democratic state Treasurer Ann Richards.

Harvey Gantt, the black former mayor of Charlotte, N.C., predicted he'd pull the upset of the year and topple Republican Sen. Jesse Helms.

"We're going to win," Gantt told supporters Monday. "That's right. How sweet that's going to be."

"It has been a spirited debate, albeit a vicious one," Helms told reporters. He accused Gantt of running a negative campaign and said, "I regret his tone. We had hoped we could run a positive campaign, but from the beginning they came in with slashing commercials."

Senior Republican Sens. Mark Hatfield of Oregon and Rudy Boschwitz of Minnesota had reason for uneasiness, even though closing polls indicated a trend in their direction.

Hatfield was challenged by businessman Harry Lonsdale and Boschwitz was under siege from college professor Paul Wellstone.

Rep. Pat Saiki was the best GOP hope for ousting a Democratic senator. She was challenging appointed Sen. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii.

Pollsters agreed that voters were in a sour mood, unhappy with the president and Congress alike on their handling of the economy.

An ABC News poll said 61 percent of the people disapprove of how Bush is handling the economy and the same percentage also is unhappy with how Congress has handled the same issue.

On the question, "Do you think the economy is getting better, getting worse or staying the same?" 77 percent said getting worse, while only 4 percent said getting better. The poll has a margin of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Pollster Louis Harris was forecasting a big victory for the Democrats.

"This is a very Democratic mood out there," Harris said. "There's no sign of the late Republican surge some have talked about."

Richard Wirthlin, who was President Reagan's pollster, said Monday that Republicans will lose one Senate seat compared with two they would have lost in late October, 12 to 13 House seats compared with 17 they would have lost and two or three governorships compared with four they might have lost.

"I fully thought 10 days ago there would be an absolute blowout," he said. "Now I think Republicans will take hits but it won't be as bad."


(Additional information)

Voters have until 8 to cast their ballots

Utahns went to the polls Tuesday to vote for U.S. House seats, state legislators, state and local school boards, county officers and several ballot propositions, including removing the sales tax from food.

The polls are open until 8 p.m., so if you haven't voted you may still have a chance. You can find your polling place by calling your local county clerk. In Salt Lake County that number is 468-3427, in Davis County, 451-3213.