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Energized Jeffords Confident About 2006

Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) says he is enthusiastic about, and ready for, what could be a very tough 2006 re-election race.

But retirement rumors persist in the Green Mountain State, which has some politicians — led by Rep. Bernie Sanders (I) — quietly readying to succeed him.

“I feel good and healthy,” the 70-year-old Senator said during a recent interview in his Capitol Hill office. “I just got two new eyes; I feel better than I have in years.”

Jeffords said his recent cataract surgery “pumped up my spirit, so I think I’ll go another term.”

Despite what Jeffords says, speculation in Vermont continues about his political future and health.

No one wants to speak publicly about the retirement rumors, and even pinpointing the exact origin of the talk is almost impossible. But insiders acknowledge the chatter will not cease.

“There’s plenty of speculation still; it depends on who you talk to,” said one Vermont insider. “Some think he’s not up to it, others are not sure [but] he seems to be doing better lately.”

Perhaps the best explanation for the whispers is ambition and wishful thinking.

Open Senate seats are a rarity in Vermont. Jeffords was first elected in 1988 after spending 14 years in the House. Patrick Leahy (D) arrived in the Senate in 1974.

If Jeffords stepped down, it would set off a chain reaction that likely would see Vermont’s top politicians seeking to swap state offices for Congressional posts and anyone with higher political ambition coming out of the woodwork.

In such a scenario, Vermont could see the governor’s mansion, its solitary House seat and a Senate seat up for grabs without incumbents running for any of them — all in 2006.

“People are preparing for all kinds of different races, but the first domino has to fall,” the insider said.

Sanders has made no secret that he is ready to jump into any open Senate race, though he will not challenge Jeffords.

As he does in his House races, Sanders could well get a pass from the Democrats if he runs for Senate. But Republicans would likely contest the seat vigorously, with Gov. Jim Douglas (R) mentioned as a possible candidate.

Jeffords does not seem fazed by the gossip surrounding him.

“As far as everyone is concerned, they know I’m running,” he said.

Jeffords has a $2 million war chest that grows daily, and he has been endorsed by Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, a former Vermont governor, and Leahy. And despite his decision to abandon the GOP in 2001, Jeffords has a promise from Douglas that the state’s top Republican will not only not run against him, but that he also will not campaign on behalf of the eventual GOP nominee.

“We’ve worked together for so long, that trumps his recent political decision,” Douglas told the Vermont Valley News this week, referring to Jeffords’ defection, which temporarily handed control of the Senate to the Democrats. “I’m certainly not going to be out there campaigning against him.”

National Republicans would love to target Jeffords, but they may be hard-pressed to find a top-flight candidate. So far only retired Air Force pilot Greg Parke, who has twice been unsuccessful in his bid for the state’s lone House seat, has entered the Senate race.

“We’re certainly hopeful that a good candidate will come forward, and hopefully the GOP in Vermont can find a good candidate and we are happy to work with them on that,” said Brian Nick, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Jim Barnett, Vermont’s Republican state party chairman, has made toppling Jeffords a priority and recently sent out a fundraising appeal bashing the Senator for leaving the party. But even he has acknowledged that beating the incumbent will be tough.

“It certainly would be an uphill battle,” Barnett said. “Traditionally, he’s a strong candidate, he has more money now than he ever had. That being said, no one is unbeatable; with a well-funded challenger running a strong campaign, anything is possible.”

Jeffords insisted that he has soothed any hard feelings that his switch may have engendered.

“I have been contacting contributors and supporters,” he said. “After the switch, I offered to return individual donations,” but no one took him up on it.

Jeffords says he knows the NRSC would like to target him, but he does not seem to mind.

“They’ll support the state party if they have a real threat to me,” he said, fully knowing that may not happen.

Some credible Republicans are said to be eyeing the race, including Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie; former state House Speaker Walter Freed; and Richard Tarrant, co-founder and board chairman of IDX Systems Corp., a Burlington-based information technology firm. Tarrant flirted with the idea of taking on Leahy last year.

No big-name Democrat is expected to challenge the man who caucuses with their party in the Senate.

Jeffords has not asked the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for help but said he “would not turn away funds; they want me to win.” Jeffords is confident in his re-election bid.

“Vermont’s last election just cured me of any concerns,” he said, noting that as much as 70 percent of Vermonters consider themselves independent-minded voters.

Despite being considered a public enemy by many Republicans across the country, Jeffords said he does not regret his decision and he believes he has helped moderate Republicans remain in the party.

“I help them stay where they are because the party goes out of their way to not get mad at them,” Jeffords said, referring to colleagues such as Sens. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Susan Collins (R-Maine).

“My walking across the aisle” makes the Senate’s GOP leaders treat rank-and-file Members who sometimes stray from party orthodoxy better, Jeffords said. “They’ll be more tolerant now.”

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