Maine's George Mitchell was elected Senate Democratic leader for the 101st Congress Tuesday, defeating colleagues Bennett Johnston of Louisiana and Daniel Inouye of Hawaii. Mitchell, a Northeast liberal, came within one vote of winning a majority on the first ballot, and then Johnston and Inouye, his defeated rivals, moved to make the vote unanimous on the second ballot.

The 55-year-old Maine senator, who has been in the Senate only since 1980, garnered 27 of the 28 votes needed for a majority on the first secret ballot held behind closed doors in the ornate old Supreme Court chamber.Mitchell will succeed Senate Democratic leader Robert Byrd at the start of the 101st Congress in January. Byrd, who had served a dozen years in the coveted post, was elected president pro-tem, which makes him third in line to the presidency.

Mitchell, a former federal judge, immediately becomes a major figure and a major voice in the party, set to lead Democrats in the Bush presidency. The Democrats hold a 55-45 margin in the Senate.

At the same time, Republicans elected their leaders for the next Senate GOP leader Robert Dole of Kansas, assistant leader Alan Simpson of Wyoming, policy chairman William Armstrong of Colorado and conference secretary Thad Cochran of Mississippi were elected unanimously with one vote.

Incumbent conference chairman John Chafee of Rhode Island defeated a challenge from Sen. Frank Murkowski of Alaska 28-17.

Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma bested Sen. John McCain of Arizona 28-17 in a two-way fight for the post of chairman of the Senate GOP campaign committee. The incumbent, Sen. Rudy Boschwitz of Minnesota, did not seek re-election for the position that normally is rotated every two years

Almost all of the attention was focused on the contest among Mitchell, Inouye and Johnston, all three of whom campaigned to the end in an effort to win one of the most commanding and demanding positions in Washington.

The post requires 28 votes, a majority of the 55 Senate Democrats.