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Cochran in No Hurry To Decide on ’08 Race

Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), under pressure from Senate Republican leaders to decide whether he’ll run for re-election in 2008, is stepping up his fundraising activity and said Friday through a spokeswoman that he is leaning toward seeking a sixth term.

Cochran spokeswoman Margaret Wicker said the Senator does not plan to make a formal decision until late this year or early 2008, but she indicated that the 69-year-old Mississippian is inclined to not disappoint his supporters who are encouraging him to run again.

“He’s leaning toward running,” Wicker said.

About six Republican Senators have left the door open to retiring next year. But those six are part of a larger group of 19 out of the 21 GOP Senators up for re-election in 2008 who have indicated to the National Republican Senatorial Committee that they plan to stick around. Of the two who haven’t given such assurances, Sen. Wayne Allard (Colo.) recently announced that he’ll retire, while Cochran had been relatively noncommittal.

Republicans say Cochran recognizes the bind his conference is in — the GOP is defending 21 seats to the Democrats’ 12 in 2008 — and is trying to do everything he can to make sure his seat stays in the GOP column. Cochran would be heavily favored if he runs for re-election, but an open seat could produce a highly competitive contest.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and NRSC Chairman John Ensign (Nev.) have been urging Cochran to inform them of his plans sooner rather than later.

Cochran “definitely understands [leadership’s] desire, and respects that,” said one Washington, D.C.-based Republican familiar with the situation. “He is being thoughtful already on fundraising.”

Mississippi Republican insiders — citing what they describe as a “major” fundraiser Cochran has scheduled on Feb. 20 in Jackson — believe he is inclined to run for re-election, although they profess no direct knowledge of his 2008 plans.

Their read on Cochran is that he approaches big decisions in a slow and methodical fashion and is not prone to arm-twisting from above. This could be why pressure from the leadership within the Senate Republican Conference hasn’t caused Cochran to reconsider his timeline for determining whether he’ll run for re-election.

“I’m hearing that he’s going to do it — that he’s going to run again,” said one Mississippi Republican.

Should Cochran retire, the person at the top of most Republicans’ lists to run to replace him is six-term Rep. Chip Pickering (R). The Congressman was prepared to run in 2006, had Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (Miss.) chosen to call it a career, and he is seen as eager to do so whenever one of his state’s Republican Senators retire.

Also mentioned as possible candidates are Rep. Roger Wicker (R) and Gov. Haley Barbour (R), who is running for re-election this year. Barbour currently professes to have little interest in the Senate, but his name is bandied about as a leading contender should Cochran’s seat open up.

“I certainly hope [Cochran] runs again. He’s our senior Senator and one of our great leaders,” said Mississippi Republican Party Chairman Jim Herring.

The field of potential Democratic candidates is less clear at the moment, although the an open seat is seen as possibly competitive despite the recent spate of success Republicans have had in the former Democratic stronghold.

One Democratic insider based in Mississippi expects the Senate candidate field to come into view after March 1, the filing deadline for running for statewide and state legislative offices this year. Once the candidates on the 2007 ballot emerge, those who might run in 2008 — whether against Cochran or for an open seat should he retire — will be easier to gauge.

One Democrat who has been mentioned for statewide office repeatedly is former state Attorney General Mike Moore. Moore led the legal fight waged by several states against the tobacco industry, and he helped negotiate a large payout worth millions of dollars to state coffers around the country.

Moore, now a lawyer in private practice near Jackson, did not return a phone message left late last week requesting comment.

Regardless of who ends up as the Democratic nominee, said one Mississippi Democrat, “I do anticipate that the Democrats will field a formidable opponent in 2008.” This Democrat added that his party — following a strategy laid out by Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean — plans to compete with the Republicans up and down the ballot in the Magnolia State.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokeswoman Deirdre Murphy indicated that Democrats don’t plan to give Cochran a free pass in 2008, despite the fact that he is well thought of at home and won his 2002 race with 85 percent of the vote.

“Thad Cochran has a long history of putting Washington before Mississippi, and it is going to hurt his Senate re-election bid in 2008,” Murphy said.

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