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White House Hopefuls Facing Dilemma

Three of the at least 10 Senators who are currently being talked about as presidential candidates for 2008 are facing a doubly difficult decision: Should they file for re-election in 2008?

Sens. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) are all taking the initial steps to run for the White House but also face the prospect of deciding what to do about their re-election status. All three see their Senate terms expire in ’08.

Only Hagel has taken the public position of saying that he will decide one way or the other before making his announcement after the 2006 elections, throwing aside any future career in the Senate if he goes for the GOP presidential nomination.

“I’ll make a decision after the elections next year,” he said in a brief interview. “I’ll make a decision — it’ll be one or the other.”

In taking this route, Hagel sets up the possibility that he would follow former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), who announced in the fall of 2003 that he would focus fully on the White House and not run for another Senate term.

Hagel said it would be very clear that if he runs for the White House, there will be no other fallback for him politically. “I would not try to do both. I would not try be on the ballot for both. I’ll make the decision one way or the other,” he said.

Interestingly, Hagel said a retirement altogether is almost as likely as a run for another Senate term. By the end of 2008, Hagel said he will have served a dozen years in the Senate — a sufficient time to have made some accomplishments.

“I might just leave,” he said.

Biden and Kerry were far more cryptic in laying out their plans as they separately contemplated whether to launch another White House run and, if so, what the impact would be for their future in a chamber they’ve served in for a combined 54 years.

“I’m not making any judgment on that,” Biden said recently. “That’s three lifetimes away.”

“I have nothing to say about that,” Kerry added. “I’m thinking about tomorrow.”

Biden has a slight advantage over Kerry in the time line he would be under to make a decision. Under Massachusetts law, candidates for statewide office or any Congressional office have until the first Tuesday in June to file for their respective race. Delaware’s laws allow Biden to make his final decision on running for the Senate more than a month after Kerry does.

But, even by June 2008, the Democratic primary will almost certainly be decided, and Kerry, should he not win the nomination again, could file to seek a fifth term.

However, running in the presidential primary without making a clear decision on the Senate race entails some risk, allowing opponents to contend that the presidential campaign is not a fully committed endeavor.

Before making his announcement foreswearing a Senate bid, Edwards was dogged for months about whether he was keeping his options open for the Senate in case he did not win the nomination. So Hagel, Biden and Kerry may feel some pressure by early to mid-2007 to state their intentions very clearly.

The other potential White House candidates won’t have this dilemma. Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and George Allen (R-Va.), for example, are up for re-election this year and so far are facing only token opposition. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) is retiring at the end of 2006, and most of the other Senate contenders would be up in 2010.

If Hagel, Biden or Kerry rule out another Senate term, the impact of that decision will be felt both in the chamber and back in their home states.

Hagel would be giving up the most in terms of Senatorial legacy if he runs and fails in his bid for the presidency while not seeking re-election. By the end of 2008, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) will be set to give up the gavel because of committee term limits. Hagel is next in line to become chairman — his first full chairmanship in the chamber.

Without Hagel in line to succeed Lugar, Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.), if he wins re-election in 2006, would be the most senior Republican on the panel, potentially making the Senate’s leading diplomat a Member who has been viewed as something of a wild card by both Republicans and Democrats.

Hagel’s seat would likely remain in GOP hands given the Republican tilt of the state — President Bush won it by a 2-to-1 margin in 2004 — though centrist Democrats have sometimes flourished in Cornhusker State Senatorial races (including current Sen. Ben Nelson and former Sen. Bob Kerrey).

A Kerry retirement would set off a bitter Democratic primary that had already begun to bubble up last summer and fall, as a host of Bay State Democrats angled for fundraising and endorsement position in case Kerry won the presidency and there was a race to succeed him. Those lawmakers continued to stockpile campaign cash in the first half of 2005. Reps. Marty Meehan (D), Ed Markey (D) and Barney Frank (D), for instance, ended June 30 with $4.8 million, $2.4 million and $1.8 million, respectively.

While Massachusetts is as solid a blue state as there is, bitter Democratic primaries — usually held in September in the Bay State — have often left the party divided in gubernatorial races. That has allowed Republicans to hold the governor’s mansion continuously since January 1991. If that pattern holds for Democrats, it could pose problems for the party in what would be the state’s first open Senate race in 24 years.

And in Delaware, national Democrats would be miserable if Biden decided to retire, because Rep. Mike Castle (R) has been diligently waiting for more than a decade to jump into Biden’s seat. A popular former two-term governor who represents the entire state in the House, Castle has held statewide office for the past 25 years.

He would likely be the prohibitive favorite in a race to succeed Biden. While Gov. Ruth Ann Minner (D) might be able to mount a challenge, Delaware, like many small states, is known for its courtly politics, and Castle, as a leading moderate, would likely be acceptable to many Democrats.

Senate Democrats have already been burned by the presidential ambitions of their caucus. Edwards’ retirement left open the door for Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who won in 2004 over Erskine Bowles (D).

Another candidate for the ’04 nomination, then-Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), dropped out in the fall of 2003, leaving him plenty of time to enter the 2004 Senate race, but Graham decided to retire anyway.

Graham was succeeded by Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.).