President Clinton clinched re-election handily, becoming the first Democrat in more than 50 years to win a second term and claiming a mandate from Americans early Wednesday, declaring that voters ''told us to go forward.''
Clinton's victory, fueled by a sense of economic security in the nation and complacency among voters, was certain late Tuesday as he trounced Republican rival Bob Dole in the Electoral College.
But it appeared Republicans would rack up consecutive majorities in both chambers of Congress for the first time since 1930, with a probable gain of about 10 seats for Democrats in the House -- shy of the 19 needed to take back control -- and a net loss of two Democratic seats in the Senate.
In key state after key state, Clinton was declared the hands-down victor early, including in such past GOP strongholds as New Hampshire and Florida, as well as major battleground states of the Midwest.
He tallied an impressive electoral sweep that marked a win of historical significance as well for Democrats, who have been unable to win re-election to the presidency since Franklin D. Roosevelt won his fourth term in 1944.
Clinton also hovered near a plurality of the general vote, something that eluded him in 1992, and he used the occasion of a boisterous victory celebration in Little Rock, Ark., to claim he finally had the American people behind him.
''Today the American people have spoken. They have affirmed our course. They have told us to go forward,'' exclaimed Clinton, who at age 50 became the youngest president ever to win re-election. ''It is time to put politics aside, join together and get the job done for America's future.''
But far from taking back control of the Senate, where the GOP had led 53-47, Democrats were headed for a net loss of two seats, as Republicans took seats held by retiring Democrats in Nebraska, Alabama and Arkansas, and Democrats managed to oust only Sen. Larry Pressler of South Dakota.
Democrats also fell short in the House. Needing 19 seats to regain control, Democrats succeeded in knocking off several of their main targets -- the Republican freshmen first elected in 1994. But they did not win enough to erase their 235-197 deficit entering the election.
And amid relatively few gubernatorial contests, Democrats gained one governorship by taking New Hampshire, but Republicans put their nationwide lead back at 32-17 by winning in usually Democratic West Virginia.
With 99 percent of the vote counted nationwide late Wednesday morning, Clinton remained on target for capturing the majority vote he has so eagerly sought, leading Dole 50 percent to 41 percent. Reform Party nominee Ross Perot, who won an unexpected 19 percent of the vote in 1992, gleaned only 9 percent.
The results climaxed months of a steady double-digit lead over Dole for the president, who won a similarly decisive electoral win in 1992 over Republican George Bush, 370-168, but chafed at getting only 43 percent of the popular vote.
With his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, daughter Chelsea and Vice President Al Gore and his family, the president consoled Dole on his loss, praising him for having ''fought so bravely to the very last minute.''
''On behalf of all Americans, I wish him well and godspeed,'' Clinton told several thousand supporters gathered outside the Old Statehouse in Little Rock.
Dole, too, was graceful in defeat, telephoning the president before coming before supporters in Washington to officially concede the race for himself and running mate Jack Kemp.
''I'm still the most optimistic man in America,'' said Dole, whose campaign strategy was seen in his waning weeks as geared toward helping Republican congressional candidates as much as his own longshot candidacy. ''We're going to keep the House, keep the Senate.'' And of his opponent, he added, ''I wish him well and I pledge my support in whatever advances the cause of a better America.''
In Dallas, meanwhile, a smiling Perot thanked his supporters, repeating what had become the theme of his campaign. ''We must set the highest ethical and moral standards for the people who serve in our government,'' Perot said. ''We're going to have to stand at the gate and keep the pressure on, and we will.''
The race was effectively over by 9 p.m. EST Tuesday, when projected results showed Clinton garnering more than the 270 electoral votes necessary for election. The night's results are formally ratified early next year.
By early Wednesday, Clinton had tallied 379 electoral votes to Dole's 159. Also being decided Tuesday were 11 governorships, 34 Senate seats and all 435 House seats. The three Republicans capturing Democrat-held Senate seats were state Attorney General Jeff Sessions in Alabama, businessman Chuck Hagel in Nebraska, and Rep. Tim Hutchinson in Arkansas. Rep. Tim Johnson defeated Pressler to reverse control of his seat from South Dakota.
Democratic winners in other hard-fought Senate races included New Jersey Rep. Robert Torricelli, former Georgia Secretary of State Max Cleland, Illinois Rep. Richard Durbin, and incumbent Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Paul Wellstone of Minnesota.
Republican winners were headed by Reps. Pat Roberts and Sam Brownback in Kansas, state Sen. Michael Enzi in Wyoming, and incumbent Sens. Robert Smith of New Hampshire, John Warner of Virginia, Jesse Helms of North Carolina, Fred Thompson of Tennessee, Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, and Pete Domenici of New Mexico.
Republicans fought back Democratic gains to hold on to a slight majority in the House. The GOP held about 15 seats more than Democrats as ballots continued to be counted on the West Coast early Wednesday. Democrats succeeded in their goal of knocking off at least 12 of the 70 freshmen Republican seeking re-election, including Reps. Michael Flanagan, R-Ill., Andrea Seastrand, R-Calif., Jim Longley, R-Maine, David Funderburk, R-N.C., and Frank Cremeans, R-Ohio.
There were only a few surprises in the House. Ten-term Rep. Harold Volkmer, D-Mo., was defeated, and Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn., lost a close race that could be recounted. Johnson was the chairwoman of the House ethics committee, which conducted a still-unresolved, two-year ethics probe of House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
The House added another independent to its ranks, but she is likely to become a Republican when the House convenes. Jo Ann Emerson won the seat vacated by the death of her husband, Rep. Bill Emerson, R-Mo., a few months ago.
The race between the presidential candidates had appeared to tighten in the final days of campaign '96, with a slight surge by Perot, who pounded Clinton on ethical questions in the midst of a spate of allegations concerning Democratic fund-raising practices from foreign sources.
Dole, too, hammered the president, beginning in their third and final debate, over his leadership and malfeasance in the administration.
But after a grueling, 11th-hour march across the country, the former senator from Kansas set aside the assault, saying ''the arguments about the election are over and the choice now rests with the voters of America.''
It was the finale of a 30-plus year career for the 73-year-old Dole, who held hopes to the end of becoming the modern-day Harry S. Truman, who scored a surprise victory in 1948. But the former Senate Republican leader was unable to energize the GOP base and spent months helplessly trying to trim the seemingly impenetrable lead of the incumbent president. Even his campaign centerpiece -- a plan to cut taxes 15 percent while balancing the budget -- failed to resonate with voters wary of such promises broken in the past.
For Clinton, the election climaxed a disciplined re-election effort with the majority of the country apparently satisfied with the status quo and a generally strong economy. Nationwide exit polling conducted by the major television networks confirmed that voters choosing Clinton responded to his concentration on the economy and policy issues, and voters choosing Dole responded to his focus on character issues.