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Senate Finally In Focus

After enduring more than a year of criticism for their seeming inability to capitalize on a playing field heavily tilted in their direction, Senate Republicans have finalized a candidate lineup that is likely to hold or solidify the party’s majority in the November elections.

A Roll Call analysis of the dozen races actively targeted by both parties — made after the conclusion of Tuesday’s primaries in Washington state and Wisconsin — suggests that the most likely outcome on Nov. 2 will be a Republican gain of a single seat. No net gain or a two-seat pickup are not out of the question.

“I think we have a good chance of picking up seats,” said NRSC Chairman George Allen (Va.) in an interview Wednesday. “There are more than enough opportunities for us to strengthen our majority.”

Republicans currently hold 51 seats to 48 for Democrats. Independent Sen. Jim Jeffords (Vt.) caucuses with Democrats.

Senate Democrats continue to maintain that a majority is within reach, but they do so with noticeably less exuberance than they expressed in the aftermath of the March retirement of Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R).

“I feel better today than I did four weeks ago, but not as good as I felt June 1,” acknowledged Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Jon Corzine (N.J.).

Corzine did predict, however, that Democrats would stand at between 50 and 52 seats at the end of this cycle.

“There will be some who will be OK [with 50 seats] or if we lose a seat, but I don’t accept that,” Corzine added. “This is about taking the majority, so we can help [John] Kerry execute his agenda [if he wins the White House], or so we can provide legitimate opposition to the policies of a second Bush administration.”

Most Democratic insiders express a more pessimistic attitude about the push for the majority.

One Democratic consultant said that while winning Senate control was once theoretically possible, it is no longer since candidate slates have been set for each side.

“We haven’t done anything wrong, we just haven’t gotten any breaks,” the source said.

Republican prospects up and down the ballot have brightened during the past month as President Bush, buoyed by a strong showing at his party’s national convention, jumped into a modest but persistent lead over Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (D).

Democrats acknowledge that August was a poor month for Kerry as he mishandled attacks on his military record. But they assert that Democratic Senate candidates were less affected by his slippage.

“I am not sure that the Kerry collapse in red states is going to have an effect on Senate candidates,” said media consultant Anita Dunn, who has close ties to the DSCC. “The Kerry-Bush dynamic is so personal.”

Dunn added that September has been a much better month for Senate Democrats, pointing to developments in Oklahoma and South Carolina that have accrued to their benefit.

On its face, the landscape this cycle tilts in Republicans’ favor.

Senate Democrats must defend 19 seats, 10 of which are in states carried by Bush in 2000. That total includes five open seats in the South, a region that has grown increasingly inhospitable to the Democratic Party over the past two decades.

By contrast, Republicans have 15 seats to protect, including open seats in Oklahoma, Colorado and Illinois.

Given that backdrop, the NRSC drew significant criticism in Republican circles during 2003 when the party failed repeatedly to recruit top-tier candidates into Senate races.

In Arkansas, Illinois, North Dakota, Nevada, Wisconsin and Washington state the first-choice candidate of the NRSC decided against a run.

That situation worsened with the Colorado recruitment process, in which the NRSC publicly flailed before coming up with an alternative to former Rep. Bob Schaffer (R). The party eventually settled on brewing magnate Pete Coors, who handily defeated Schaffer in an August primary.

“Candidate recruitment is dangerous when you do it publicly,” said one Republican consultant. “You open yourself up to criticism if things don’t work out.”

Allen acknowledged that there was some “carping” during the candidate-recruitment process.

“You can’t command people to [run],” he explained. “The governor of Arkansas wanted to stay as the governor of Arkansas.”

The early rounds of criticism have died down as a slew of GOP primaries in Florida, Oklahoma, Colorado, South Carolina and most recently Wisconsin have produced the candidate widely seen as representing Republicans’ best chances to win contested races.

With the exception of Oklahoma — where the NRSC was originally behind former Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys (R) in a primary won by former Rep. Tom Coburn (R) — the party committee was either tacitly or publicly backing the winning candidate.

A race-by-race analysis shows that each side has one contest that is an almost assured takeover.

For Democrats, the strong takeover prospect is the open seat of retiring Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.). State Sen. Barack Obama (D) leads two-time presidential candidate Alan Keyes (R) by a huge margin.

The opposite holds in Georgia, where Rep. Johnny Isakson (R) is a huge favorite to defeat Rep. Denise Majette (D) in the race to replace Sen. Zell Miller, a Democrat who has all but abandoned his party.

The two other Republican open seats in Oklahoma and Colorado are generally regarded as tossups.

Coburn emerged from a late-July primary with significant momentum, but he’s seen a dropoff in recent weeks, thanks to past actions and comments that have recently claimed the spotlight.

The most potentially damaging charge may be that Coburn performed a forced sterilization on a woman without her consent. The woman filed suit against Coburn in 1991, although the case never went to trial.

The outlook for Republicans in Colorado’s Senate race has improved, although Democrats remain confident that state Attorney General Ken Salazar (D) will pull out a victory.

Coors’ 61 percent victory over Schaffer boosted GOP prospects, but Coors has been inconsistent as a candidate.

Privately, Republicans acknowledge that Salazar’s strength in Colorado’s rural areas — he hails from the San Luis Valley in the southern part of the state — gives him a leg up against Coors, who is seen as a Denver-area candidate.

Among their own open seats, Democrats seem best positioned in North Carolina, where 2002 Senate nominee Erskine Bowles (D) is generally credited with outworking Rep. Richard Burr (R) so far.

Burr has begun what promises to be an extensive media campaign, however, and despite Democrats’ best efforts to suggest that the state might follow Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards, Bush is still considered likely to carry the state.

The NRSC initially planned a $5.3 million independent-expenditure ad campaign on Burr’s behalf but is now committed to just $1.3 million worth of television time.

In Florida, the victory of former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez at the end of August in Florida’s Republican primary is generally seen as hurting Democrats’ chances to hold the seat of retiring Sen. Bob Graham (D), despite a nasty end-of-the-campaign period against former Rep. Bill McCollum, Martinez’s primary opponent.

Although Democrats quickly released a survey that showed former state Education Commissioner Betty Castor (D) leading Martinez by 4 points, party strategists acknowledged that the race had gotten much tougher.

The South Carolina Senate contest has been headed in the Republicans’ direction ever since Rep. Jim DeMint (R) won a June 22 runoff over former Gov. David Beasley (R).

Democrats insist that state Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum has righted her campaign after firing her manager and media consultant. They also tout a potent issue in DeMint’s support for a 23 percent national sales tax.

Louisiana’s open-seat race is not likely to draw significant attention until after Nov. 2 because of the state’s unique election laws.

All the candidates seeking to replace Sen. John Breaux (D) will run in an open primary on Nov. 2. If no candidate receives 50 percent, as is likely, then the top two votegetters, regardless of party affiliation, will advance to a Dec. 4 runoff.

For now, the two most likely runoff participants are Reps. David Vitter (R) and Chris John (D).

One incumbent from each party — Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) — is in a tight contest. Polling shows both races within the margin of error, and both are considered likely to be nip-and-tuck for the remainder of the campaign.

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