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Coleman, Dole Claim Majority

NRSC Chief to Be Chosen Wednesday

Setting up a furious final day of campaigning for the chamber’s only remaining leadership vacancy, Sens. Norm Coleman (Minn.) and Elizabeth Dole (N.C.) are both claiming to have enough votes to win the chairmanship of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Neither side officially declared victory in advance of Wednesday’s vote, citing the largely unpredictable nature of the secret-ballot process in leadership elections. But both the Dole and Coleman camps laid claim to at least the 28 votes needed in the 55-member Senate Republican Conference that will be seated for the 109th Congress.

Publicly, Senators supporting Dole have sent two letters to colleagues in the past 12 days backing her for the job, which together created a bloc of 19 Senators who have publicly signed letters on her behalf.

Coleman, who has been campaigning for the job since spring, many months longer than the late-starting Dole, has still released the names of only seven supporters. In a letter Monday, however, he emphatically stated that he had the votes to win as long as his supporters stood by their commitments.

“I am so appreciative of your commitment to my efforts to serve as chair of the NRSC for the 2006 cycle,” he wrote in a letter given to Roll Call by a Senate aide who requested anonymity. “And I am pleased to say that we have at least the 28 votes necessary to achieve that goal. With the continued support of you and other colleagues who have committed to me, we will be successful on Monday.”

In Coleman’s corner is one of the best vote-counters in the Senate, Trent Lott (R-Miss.), a former Whip in the House and Senate. Lott, who was an early supporter of Coleman’s bid for the NRSC, said he has reviewed the Minnesotan’s lists and believes Coleman has won the race.

“Unless somebody switches on him, he’s got the votes,” said Lott, who estimated that a handful of GOP Senators may still be undecided.

But Dole’s camp was equally emphatic that their side had the votes to win. “She is 100 percent confident that she has more than 28 votes needed to win on Wednesday,” said Brian Nick, spokesman for Dole.

The latest public display of support for Dole came in a letter Friday signed by eight of the 14 Republicans up for re-election in 2006. In addition to the 16 Senators who had previously signed a Nov. 5 letter supporting Dole, Sens. George Allen (Va.), Conrad Burns (Mont.) and John Ensign (Nev.) went on record as supporters of her bid.

Allen is the outgoing NRSC chairman.

The eight-Senator letter Friday pointed to a recent column in Roll Call by political analyst Stuart Rothenberg in which he noted the two-time Cabinet member and former presidential candidate’s potential celebrity appeal on the fundraising circuit. “We rarely look to the media for political advice, but in this case, the article points out the obvious,” the Senators wrote of Dole.

The Dole-Coleman race — the first competitive Senate leadership battle either party has had in four years — is shaping up in some ways as a geographical and generational battle. Dole’s bedrock of support comes from a clutch of Senators who are old friends of her husband, former Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.).

She has the support of three “Old Bull” committee chairmen: Armed Services Chairman John Warner (Va.), Foreign Relations Chairman Dick Lugar (Ind.), and incoming Budget Chairman Judd Gregg (N.H.). In addition, the two Senators from Bob Dole’s native Kansas, Pat Roberts and Sam Brownback, are behind Dole’s NRSC bid, as is Sen. Bob Bennett (Utah). And Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.), whose late father, Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.), was a friend of Bob Dole’s, is supporting Dole for NRSC.

At the same time, this Republican Conference is not the same group Bob Dole oversaw.

Of the 55 Senators in the GOP Conference come January, 35 took office after the 1994 elections, meaning more than 60 percent of the Conference has served 10 years or less.

Notably, the chamber’s top three Republicans — Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.), Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) — have kept quiet on their choice for the campaign committee.

But Dole’s camp believes that all the momentum is on their side, given that, counting her own vote, she has 20 public votes and Coleman has just eight. Coleman’s supporters said they have not been as willing to go public with names at the behest of the Senators backing him but that he has a huge cache of support, with his fellow 2002 Senate class providing the base of his backing.

As is the case in most leadership races, each side desperately wants to create a sense of momentum and inevitability pointing to their victory, trying to exert the last bit of pressure on any undecided or loosely committed Senators who might be persuaded to switch sides to be with the winner.

Coleman’s camp has made a pitch clearly based on the terrain of the 2006 cycle, noting that the battleground Senate races will be fought out along the Northeastern-Midwestern front. “That’s an obvious advantage for him,” said former Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.), a prominent lobbyist supporting Coleman.

Lott noted that Coleman, 55, a native of Brooklyn who moved to Minnesota, would likely have better political instincts in those states than Dole, 68, a native North Carolinian who later moved to the nation’s capital.

There are 17 Democratic seats up for grabs in 2006 and 15 Republican seats, with Frist already announcing his plans to retire at the end of the cycle. Democrats facing tough or potentially tough re-election battles include Sens. Mark Dayton (Minn.), Ben Nelson (Neb.), Bill Nelson (Fla.), Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) and Kent Conrad (N.D.), and Republicans will at least want to put up a well-financed challenger to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) to make her deplete her financial war chest.

Lott said both Coleman and Dole would need to head into the race with a few extra commitments above the 28-vote barrier, out of fear of those switching sides at the end. In his seminal 1994 Whip race that ousted then-Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) from leadership, Lott said he had 32 votes five days before the vote and barely hung on with just 27 votes when the ballots were counted.

“Senators are unreliable,” he said. “You’ve got to listen to every word, every nuance. You’ve got to look at their eyes. Do they shift in their seats when talking to you?”

The GOP reorganization meeting will begin at 9 a.m. Wednesday, with breakfast available to Senators in the Mansfield Room, but the voting will take place in the Old Senate Chamber.

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