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Democrats Hope For Kerry Boost

House, Senate Impact Mulled

With Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) on the verge of wrapping up the Democratic presidential nomination, party strategists expressed a mixture of relief and trepidation Tuesday about his potential effect on Senate and House races around the country.

“There is a level of concern,” said one Democratic consultant who handles a number of high-profile Senate and House races. “Granted he has a lot of strengths, but he does have some softness in being a Massachusetts liberal, and there are some places where that could be a problem.”

Senate Democrats must defend five open seats in the South and face races in the Republican-leaning states of South Dakota and Alaska. Over in the House, Democrats must win Southern districts to make inroads on the GOP’s current 12-seat majority.

But a number of senior Democrats argued that Kerry has far greater potential to reach out to centrist voters than Howard Dean. These strategists said the party dodged a bullet as the Massachusetts Senator’s ascension coincided with the implosion of the former Vermont governor.

Without mentioning Dean, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Jon Corzine (N.J.) said Kerry’s résumé as a Vietnam War veteran should settle the nerves of Senate candidates who were worried the ticket would get bogged down defending attacks on its patriotism.

“For those that were concerned about national security issues, he’s got the experience,” Corzine said of Kerry.

Corzine threw his support to Kerry on Jan. 27, the day of the New Hampshire primary even as other New Jersey elected officials —including Gov. James McGreevey (D) — were lining up behind Dean.

Another Democratic consultant was less effusive about Kerry, but did admit he was a vast improvement over Dean.

“The difference between Kerry and Dean is that whereas a lot of people would be running away from Dean, they won’t be running away from Kerry,” the strategist said of the Congressional candidates. “But, they won’t be running to embrace him either.”

In fact, GOP officials were quick to latch on to Kerry’s seeming nomination as a boon for their candidates.

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman George Allen (Va.) said the Bush campaign team and Congressional candidates will be able to paint Kerry — and Democrats down ballot — in a negative light based on the Senator’s votes on everything from Iraq to taxes.

Speculation over Kerry’s coattails will increase in the coming days as his expected Super Tuesday sweep probably will intensify pressure on Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) to get out of the race at press time last night.

Voters in 10 states headed to the polls Tuesday including California, New York, Ohio and Georgia; those four states represent 832 of the 1,151 delegates up for grabs.

Kerry deputy campaign manager Steve Elmendorf said Tuesday that because of the congenial atmosphere in the Democratic nominating process, the Massachusetts Senator — and Democrats generally — are well-positioned for the fall race against President Bush and the Republican majorities in the House and Senate.

“We have gotten through this primary season without having moved to the far left or taken any issue positions that we have to go back to the center on,” said Elmendorf. “We used the same message we will be talking about in the general election.”

A survey of Democratic Senate candidates in the most competitive races in the country revealed relatively little concern for a ticket led by Kerry.

“Tom and John Kerry go back for many, many years,” said Steve Hildebrand, campaign manager for Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). “They are good friends who have done a lot of work on behalf of veterans in the Senate.”

Daschle will face former Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.) in November. Thune ran against Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) in 2002, losing that race by 524 votes. In 2000, Bush carried South Dakota with 60 percent of the vote.

In South Carolina, another Bush stronghold in 2000, state Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum is not terribly concerned about the top of the ticket.

“Inez has emphasized that she intends to run an independent campaign,” said Tenenbaum spokeswoman Kay Packett. “No matter who is at the top of the ticket there will be issues she agrees with him on and some she won’t agree — just as she will agree with President Bush on some issues and not others.”

Perhaps the biggest issue in the Palmetto State will be trade as the state’s manufacturing industry has been devastated by the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Kerry supported NAFTA in 1993 (and in several other trade pacts since) but in recent days — under attack from Edwards — has said he would force countries that trade with the United States to live up to worker and environmental protections.

Bush has been a consistent advocate of free trade agreements.

Corzine predicted that Kerry would not hurt Tenenbaum because the focus of the race will be on Bush’s record and the war in Iraq.

“People in South Carolina are just as interested in seeing their boys come home as anyone else,” Corzine said.

In Alaska, Kerry’s opposition to drilling for oil and gas exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could throw a kink in the campaign of former Gov. Tony Knowles, who is challenging Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R).

Knowles has been an ardent advocate for drilling in ANWR, but his campaign notes that he and Kerry agree on the necessity of a natural gas pipeline in Alaska and point out that both are Vietnam veterans.

On the ANWR issue, Knowles spokesman Matt McKenna called his candidate “a guy who is isn’t afraid to stand up to either political party.”

McKenna added, “Regardless of who wins the Democratic nomination for president, Tony Knowles will always put Alaska first.”

Senior party strategists note that neither Kerry nor Bush is likely to spend a dime in Alaska or South Dakota or in the open Democratic seats in South Carolina, North Carolina if elected, and Georgia — making the top of the ticket dynamics less meaningful.

The impact on open seat Senate races in Louisiana and Florida, both of which will be targeted in the presidential race, is less clear.

One Democratic strategist went so far as to say that the goal for Kerry in some of the “red” states with critical House and Senate races was to at least keep the margin between him and Bush at 10 points or less.

A small margin of defeat in those states at the top of the ticket would be enough to let candidates like Tenenbaum run competitive races in their Senate battles, the strategist argued.

And, as one Democratic consultant pointed out, for some candidates running in conservative-minded districts, none of the 10 candidates who competed for the party’s presidential nomination would have been particularly helpful.

“For people running in rural, Southern, swing districts I don’t think who our nominee is changes anything,” the consultant said. “They don’t provide you great cover.”

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