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GOP Goes Byrd Hunting

Attacks Paint Him as Out of Step at Home

Using the upcoming judicial battles as a backdrop and President Bush in a starring role, Republicans are increasingly confident the stage is set to gin up their first-ever competitive challenge to West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd, the longest-serving Democrat in the chamber.

So far this cycle, a steady flow of news releases from the National Republican Senatorial Committee — highlighting everything from the octogenarian’s criticism of the Bush administration to a recent television appearance — have been the rallying cry in their campaign.

But whether a top candidate will eventually heed the call to challenge the one-time Appropriations chairman, long considered an institution in West Virginia, remains to be seen.

Democrats remain confident in Byrd’s ability to win another term next year. But Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) recently urged Democratic Senators to contribute to Byrd’s re-election.

NRSC spokesman Brian Nick described the news release assault as part of a “two-pronged strategy” for highlighting the ways, Republicans argue, that Byrd is increasingly out of touch with a state that voted for Bush by 13 percentage points last year.

“First of all it’s to point out that his voting record and his actions are just completely out of the mainstream of where his state is … and he’s not representing West Virginia well,” Nick said. “The other part of it is to show that he is not exactly presenting himself, whether it’s on the Senate floor, or some other places, in the best light.”

Still, Republicans have what appears to be a shallow bench when it comes to recruiting a top candidate against Byrd, who was first elected to the Senate in 1958.

Their overwhelming first choice, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R), is said to be keeping her options open but at this point has made little noise in public about a Senate race. She is considered far more likely to run if Byrd does not.

Byrd, 87, has not officially announced he will seek a ninth term, but he is said to be preparing for a run. Capito would be the odds-on favorite to win the GOP nod if Byrd does forgo re-election.

Nick stressed that there is still plenty of time to recruit a top challenger to Byrd.

In the meantime, Republicans seem content to talk about Byrd’s voting record and occasionally long-winded bromides in the Senate, in an attempt to convince voters that he is less fit for office than he once was.

Byrd has endured for so long in part because of his perch on the Senate Appropriations Committee, which has enabled him to steer millions of dollars to West Virginia through the years.

But even though his ability to bring home the bacon does not appear to have diminished, Republicans, as they did in South Dakota last year against then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D), will be making the case for fresh leadership. The GOP will also argue that Byrd is increasingly out of touch with his state, pointing, for example, to his “F” grade from the National Rifle Association.

“We’re going to try to show that this guy is vulnerable, and yes, it should help in candidate recruitment,” Nick said.

Tom Gavin, a spokesman for Byrd, said the Senator is prepared for a tough challenge. “He takes every re-election seriously,” Gavin said.

Although it’s early in the cycle, Gavin said he’s not surprised by the NRSC tactics.

“This is a group that doesn’t shy away from slash and burn politics and they’re going to try and spin every story they possibly can that Senator Byrd shouldn’t be their Senator,” he said. “But West Virginians think for themselves. They know Senator Byrd. They know what he’s done for the state.”

Last week, Reid issued a financial plea to the Democratic Caucus to help Byrd, who is currently helping to care for his ailing wife.

Byrd spent just over $1 million and won re-election with 78 percent of the vote in 2000, facing only token Republican opposition. He had $93,000 in the bank at the end of 2004.

Byrd, who is also the Senate’s foremost authority on the Constitution, will be the featured speaker at a rally Wednesday, to oppose the so-called “nuclear option” in bringing GOP judicial nominees to a floor vote.

Nick indicated the Senate’s looming judicial battles will factor prominently in the NRSC’s campaign to bring some of Byrd’s “antics and some of the things that he’s doing here” to the attention of West Virginia voters.

“You sent President Bush here, do you think he’s even entitled the dignity of having his nominees voted on?” Nick said, describing the message the NRSC plans to convey to Byrd’s constituents back home. “Or, do you agree with your senior Senator, who’s ranting and raving that he’s defending the Constitution?”

Democrats have expressed confidence in Byrd’s ability to weather the GOP attacks, and they put little stock in the media campaign to paint Byrd as damaged goods.

“The fact that this is their strategy tells me that they’re scraping the bottom of the barrel,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Phil Singer.

“Few states in our country have been lucky enough to have a Senator like Sen. Byrd.”