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Election Prospects Rise and Fall in Final Weeks

In an election cycle that feels to some of us as if it’s been five or six years long, it is momentum down the stretch that will determine who will win and who will come up short in a handful of House and Senate contests. Who has real momentum, pseudo-momentum and no momentum at all?

Or, put another way, who’s hot and who’s not?

In Senate contests, Pennsylvania’s incumbent Arlen Specter (R) is scorching, while challenger Rep. Joe Hoeffel (D) is in the deep freeze. The race, once hyped by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Hoeffel’s consultants as an upset in the making, is proving to be a laugher for Specter.

Specter has more money and more key endorsements than Hoeffel does, and the DSCC’s recent $500,000 investment in Pennsylvania can only be explained by sympathy, not political reality.

Anyone who watched the recently televised Kentucky Senate debate may well have concluded that neither Sen. Jim Bunning (R) nor challenger Dan Mongiardo (D) deserves to be in the Senate.

When asked what legislation he would like to see the Senate pass, Bunning said he’d like to make everyone free. Omigod! And most of his other answers weren’t much better.

Mongiardo, on the other hand, looked as if he came from another galaxy. Who did his make-up, Elvira? Throughout the debate he promised more for less so often that I figure he believes in the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus and even Hanukkah Harry.

Mongiardo apparently has been closing on Bunning, and Democrats are suggesting that an upset is in store. But whatever Bunning’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities — and they are considerable — he’s got loads of cash while Mongiardo doesn’t. Still, this race looks like a growing problem for the GOP.

Oklahoma has been the most interesting and entertaining Senate race of the cycle. Former Rep. Tom Coburn (R) scored an impressive primary win, opened up a considerable lead over Democratic Rep. Brad Carson, and then tanked, a victim of self-destruction.

But even though the race now looks even, I have to wonder if the advantage hasn’t shifted away from Carson and back to Coburn. After all, the Republican absorbed the kind of negative public relations hit that normally sinks a candidacy. Instead, Coburn slipped 5 or 6 points and bounced back, reflecting his fundamental populist appeal and the state’s Republican bent. And that’s got to be disturbing news for Carson’s team.

Over in the House, Rep. Phil Crane (R-Ill.) is now clearly in real trouble. Challenger Melissa Bean (D) has run the better race by far, and she has definitely closed on him. If Crane wins, it’s only because his district is so heavily Republican. The Mo is with Bean.

In Kentucky’s 3rd district, Rep. Anne Northup (R) remains in trouble because her district is so difficult for any Republican. But challenger Tony Miller (D) has proved to be an unimpressive opponent. In politics, there’s a fine line between low-key and boring — and if Miller’s energy level were any lower, he’d be asleep. The Congresswoman has simply outworked the challenger.

Northup has opened up a lead, but it could narrow again. Still, she’s put herself in better shape than fellow vulnerable Republican incumbents Heather Wilson in New Mexico’s 1st district and Rob Simmons in Connecticut’s 2nd, who also are under serious attack because of the nature of their districts.

With New England proving to be a particular problem for President Bush, Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) is having trouble fending off challenger Diane Farrell (D), a personable, well-funded local officeholder. But Shays remains extremely popular in the district, so it is far from certain that Farrell can overtake him.

In Colorado’s 7th, the closest House contest of 2002 and a top Democratic target for much of this cycle, the Mo appears to be with Rep. Bob Beauprez (R), after Jefferson County District Attorney Dave Thomas (D) took hits both in the press and in GOP TV spots raising questions about his record.

In Texas, five Democratic Congressmen continue to struggle thanks to the GOP-controlled line-drawing that was intended to defeat them. One of those incumbents, Rep. Chet Edwards, is ahead in his contest and is favored to win. The other four Democrats — Reps. Charlie Stenholm, Martin Frost, Nick Lampson and Max Sandlin — are trailing and need a late surge to win.

Finally, New York’s 27th district, where Democrat Brian Higgins and Republican Nancy Naples are locked in a tight contest to replace retiring Rep. Jack Quinn (R), may be the most even contest in the country. Naples is the better candidate, but the district strongly favors Higgins. Neither candidate has established much momentum in this must-win race for the Democrats.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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