in Richmond, Va.-It started as a party and ended as a wake at the Richmond Omni, where well-dressed Republicans gathered, hopeful they could extend their grip on the governor's mansion into 2006. Teenagers in the audience squealed excitedly as preliminary results showed Republican Mark Earley leading Democrat Mark Warner by the slimmest of margins. Their parents' cheers, however, seemed less than heartfelt. By 8 p.m., just an hour after the polls closed, the night's inexorable trend began to emerge. Mr. Warner edged ahead for the first time, 50 percent to 49 percent, and workers began wheeling some of the cash bars off the ballroom floor. Mr. Warner's lead widened to 2 points, then 3, then 4. "At least it's closer than I thought," muttered one onlooker to a friend as he knocked back the last of a napkin-wrapped beer at 8:45. "But I think that's it." Well, almost. "It" came officially at 9:20 p.m., when the AP called the race for the Democrats-the party's first statewide win since 1994. Several hundred miles up I-95, "it" came even sooner for Bret Schundler, the conservative mayor waging an uphill campaign for governor in liberal New Jersey. After wrestling the nomination from his party's moderate wing, he lost by 14 points to fellow mayor Jim McGreevey, a liberal Democrat. With the races decided early, reporters quickly set about writing the rough draft of this political history. All around the Richmond Omni they commandeered tables and scrounged for electrical outlets. They sat on the floor in the hotel's atrium, tapping at laptops and droning into cell phones. As the polls had predicted, two conservative, outspoken evangelicals had gone down to defeat in major statewide races. The dots weren't hard to connect, and the analysis didn't require any heavy lifting. Making the deadline wouldn't be a problem on this particular night. Even before the ballots were counted, conservatives braced themselves for the media spin. "They're going to say it was [the Republicans'] anti-abortion positions that did them in. 'The suburban housewives won't take it,' and so on," predicted Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation in Washington. "They'll play it that a Christian conservative simply can't be elected. That's going to be the big push: 'This kind of politics is over with. In Pat Robertson's and Jerry Falwell's own backyard, the Republicans went down the drain.'" The media, by and large, didn't disappoint. "The GOP must recruit more competent, more mainstream candidates if it wants to take the Senate and keep its House and governor seats in 2002," opined USA Today in its morning-after "news analysis." But a closer look at both races reveals that conservative ideology may have been the least of the problems facing the Republican hopefuls. In New Jersey, Bret Schundler took on a party establishment more afraid of his reformist bent than his pro-life views. Politics in Trenton is notoriously clubby-and increasingly corrupt. Christie Todd Whitman's heir apparent, acting Gov. Donald DiFrancesco was tainted in a financial scandal, forcing him to withdraw from the race. Then, rather than unite behind Mr. Schundler, the other major candidate in the primary, Trenton Republicans literally rewrote the state's laws and drafted former Rep. Bob Franks as their standard bearer. In the wake of an embarrassing grassroots defeat, New Jersey's Republican establishment never forgave their party's nominee. Lawsuits were filed, campaign funds tied up, and accusations bandied about. Mr. DiFrancesco, the acting governor, petulantly refused even to endorse Mr. Schundler. With the Republicans in open disarray, Mr. McGreevey was able to make a convincing case that Mr. Schundler was out of step with the state-and even with his own party. In Virginia, meanwhile, Mr. Earley found himself weighed down by party problems of his own. Gov. Jim Gilmore, a fellow Republican, won the office four years ago with his pledge to eliminate the state's car tax. But as the economic slowdown shriveled Virginia's budget surplus, Republicans in the legislature balked at fully delivering on the governor's promise. Both sides dug in, and the budget process ground to a halt, making the GOP look stubborn and ineffectual. To be sure, both Mr. Schundler and Mr. Earley suffered through problems of their own making, as well. But it was the squabbles within their state parties that were probably most decisive, forcing the candidates to spend precious time and money mending fences before reaching out to crucial swing voters. And despite the newspaper headlines about the death of conservatism, those swing voters seemed to be in a rather conservative mood. "It's wrong to conclude that big government liberalism is back," says Stephen Moore, president of the Club for Growth, a Washington-based organization that recruits and supports "Reagan Republicans" for important races across the country. "Both Democrats moved sharply to the right on fiscal issues. They both campaigned as right-wing fiscal conservatives, so their rhetoric has distanced them from boilerplate liberal orthodoxy." Indeed, while experts will continue to debate whether a true conservative can win statewide in the industrial northeast, the lesson from Virginia seems to be that Democrats can't win in the South unless they at least appear to be conservative. Mr. Warner, whose high-tech businesses earned him a fortune estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars, spurned his party's liberal line on issues ranging from tax cuts to abortion to guns. He aggressively wooed rural voters in the southern part of the state, campaigning almost weekly in counties typically written off by his party. Right down to the campaign's final weekend, while Mr. Earley stumped for support in the vote-rich Washington suburbs, Mr. Warner was back in the state's sparsely populated southwest "tail," cutting into the Republicans' presumed base. Still, even the most optimistic observers admit that Tuesday's one-two punch will make it harder for conservatives to win contested primaries next year. "Other candidates looking for the nomination are going to portray conservatives as unelectable extremists," predicts Mr. Weyrich. "Party operatives will say [conservatives] are yesterday's kind of candidates, that they're passe now. The important voters are soccer moms who don't want pro-life politicians.... You'll see the party establishment running screaming in the other direction. They always hated us anyway." The man at the top of the party establishment could help his fellow conservatives, of course, but President Bush's performance leading up to Tuesday's elections hasn't inspired much confidence. Despite approval ratings hovering near 90 percent, the president refused to make any ads or public appearances on behalf of Mr. Schundler and Mr. Earley. He did provide their campaigns with taped phone messages aimed at the party faithful, but critics say that was too little, too late. It was left to outgoing New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani to spend his remaining political capital on behalf of his fellow Republicans. In TV ads blanketing the airwaves during the campaign's final days, the mayor warmly endorsed the GOP's two gubernatorial candidates and Michael Bloomberg, the liberal Republican vying to succeed him in Gracie Mansion. Riding the wave of pro-Rudy fervor in New York, Mr. Bloomberg came from behind to upset his Democratic opponent, Mark Green, by a single percentage point. That led some Republicans to grumble that Mr. Bush's timidity may have cost them the races in Trenton and Richmond. Bush partisans, however, note that Mr. Guiliani's endorsement helped only in his own city, where voters saw it as relevant. "Typically these types of off-year elections will reflect local events, local politics," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, hinting that Mr. Bush would become more involved in next year's congressional elections. "That's something that the president will always decide about whether or not the time is right for him to campaign and to play a more active, visible part in politics." Indeed, Mr. Bush has already been maneuvering behind the scenes to help the GOP re-take the Senate next year (see sidebar). If his approval numbers hold up through the difficult year ahead, he could indeed provide a boost to Republicans nationwide. But the economy, the war, and the threat of continued terrorism make any predictions about next November seem especially foolhardy. If Tuesday's elections prove anything, it's that no one knows quite how to do politics in post-9/11 America. Voters were supposed to favor the status quo, yet they turned out the reigning party. They were supposed to value experience, yet they elected political neophytes in Virginia and New York. They were supposed to worry about homeland security, yet they focused on taxes and roads. In such an uncertain environment, experts say, Republicans need to find a message that resonates with voters-and distinguishes them from Democrats. "I don't know that by next November we'll still be in the bipartisan mood that we're in now," said Mr. Weyrich. "If we are, then kiss Republicans goodbye. This country is basically Democratic; people only vote Republican when the Democrats have gone too far, been too hard to swallow. If there's no difference in the message of the parties, the Democrats will win big time."