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Poring through the numbers on American life 40 years ago, the great journalist Theodore H. White saw the future. "Americans were abandoning the city and deserting the countryside, said the 1960 census," he wrote. "It also told where they were going: to the suburbs."

And they kept on going. Three decades later, the 1992 election was our first in which a majority of the votes were cast, not from the countryside, not from the city, but from the suburbs. And Republicans assumed that Suburban Nation would inevitably be Republican Nation.

Not an implausible idea, but it was wrong. Our first two suburbanized elections went to Bill Clinton, and Al Gore has a fair chance of winning the third.

What went haywire with the expectation of Republican dominance? For starters, all suburbs aren't the same. John McGovern, campaign manager for Republican congressional candidate Mark Kirk in a district north of here, compares the old suburbs of Wilmette and Highland Park with the fast-growing suburbs of Arlington Heights and Vernon Hills.

"You're talking about two cultures," he said - the differences between old and new wealth. And some suburbs are far richer than others, which affects how they vote.

Nor did the issues work out as Republicans might have hoped. Rep. John Edward Porter, a Republican who is retiring and backs Kirk, his former aide, says voters in his district have "three litmus tests:" "Do you support gun control? Are you pro-choice (on abortion)? Are you pro-environment?"

Kirk passes all three, but they are not an ideal set of issues for George W. Bush, nor for a Republican Congress dominated by conservative Southerners. Porter jokes that he blames "my old friend George McGovern" for the problem Republicans now have.

The very liberal 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, Porter says, drove Southern conservatives out of the Democratic Party. "The whole South said goodbye to the Democratic Party," he says, "and a whole large conservative constituency came over to the Republicans." What appeals to those Southern Republicans does not necessarily appeal here in the Midwest.

Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., says Bush has a problem with voters in these parts on both abortion and gun control: "There is a skepticism about a Republican out of the South who is wrong on these two issues."

Illinois' Republican senator, Peter Fitzgerald, transcended the litmus test by winning in 1998 as a strong foe of abortion. Yet Fitzgerald is under no illusions about how his views on the issue play among suburban voters. "The Republican Party is split in its base in the suburbs between the pro-life and pro-choice sides," he says.

Fitzgerald pulled off his victory because of what Durbin delicately calls "a whirlwind of controversy" around ethical problems that confronted the Democrat he defeated, former Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun. Fitzgerald draws hope for Bush from his experience. Bush, he says, will be helped by attacks on Clinton and Gore around questions of "ethics and integrity" among "clean government" suburbanites.

Perhaps. But Sam Popkin, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego who is helping the Gore campaign, says Republicans misunderstand suburbanites if they see them as pure anti-tax, anti-government voters. "They want suburban-oriented government, not no government." Referring to the famously liberal Republican governor of New York and the famously conservative Republican president, Popkin added: "They want Rockefeller, not Reagan."

As Durbin points out, suburban voters support government to solve problems they care about, such as rising gas prices and defective tires. They favor spending on education and health care. And many suburbanites would like government to wage war on sprawl and traffic jams.

But they retain, Durbin says, "a healthy skepticism about new programs, and how big they're going to be, and how effective they're going to be."

A Bush victory would disprove all theories about how out of touch with suburbanites Republicans have become. But if Gore wins, Republicans will have to wonder how they allowed their own progressive tradition - much appreciated in the suburbs - to become an adjunct to the Democratic Party.

Washington Post Writers Group

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