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GOP Leaders Fear Departures

Hoping to minimize their vulnerability in the upcoming election cycle, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Ensign (Nev.) are privately making the rounds to urge GOP colleagues to run again in 2008 — and backing the request with promises of strong support from the party.

McConnell and Ensign, charged with re-electing GOP Senators as well as winning back the majority this cycle, have been meeting over the past several weeks with GOP Senators facing re-election, according to Republican Senators and aides.

Twenty-one Republican-held seats are up in 2008, nearly twice the number of Democratic seats that will be on the ballot. One Republican — Sen. Wayne Allard (Colo.) — already has announced he will not run again next year.

Don Stewart, McConnell’s spokesman, said the Minority Leader wants to do what is necessary to keep his colleagues in the Senate.

The class of Senators up in two years is critical to the strength of the GOP, Stewart said, noting that it represents both a cast of experienced veterans and a large bloc of up-and-comers first elected in 2002.

“This is a very effective group of Members that he’d like to see stay in the Senate,” Stewart said. “This is a big, strong group.”

Senators and aides privy to the closed-door conversations said McConnell and Ensign are making a strong and early sell to encourage their incumbents to seek another term. They also have vowed to provide incumbents with the resources necessary to mount a successful campaign, especially in competitive states where Democrats are likely to invest heavily, Republican sources said.

“I just met with Sen. McConnell and Sen. Ensign to discuss my re-election plans,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) said last week. “I am sure he’ll be having 20 more of those meetings.”

Alexander is weighing a run for a second term in the Senate, a move McConnell hoped to influence when he handed the Tennessee Republican a coveted slot on the Appropriations Committee earlier this year.

Alexander said he will make his decision in the “next couple of weeks,” but he acknowledged that McConnell “gave me a reason” to want to continue to serve in the chamber.

Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), who could face a tough re-election, said he also has met with the pair, saying they have pledged “to do what has to be done” to help him win. Coleman said the conversations were less about ensuring he runs and more about offering support, since Coleman said “it wasn’t much of a sell for me” because he is aggressively seeking a second term.

“They said they are ready, willing and able to help,” Coleman said.

McConnell and Ensign have moved quickly to get the Republican political operation in place. Since Ensign took over as chairman of the NRSC in January, he has devised a comprehensive strategy to help Republicans recapture the majority this cycle.

The Nevada Republican is expanding donor pools, targeting new contributors and asking his fellow Senators to raise and give millions more to the campaign committee.

A senior GOP aide said Senate leaders initiated the meetings with the 2008 incumbents late last year, adding that McConnell didn’t want to waste any time looking ahead to what’s expected to be another competitive election cycle.

“He’s not a procrastinator,” the aide said. “His [modus operandi] is to set out and have a roadmap and make it happen.”

Another GOP aide added the meetings “are not a secret” and are “about touching base” with the incumbent Senators. “We are all in this together,” said the aide. “The leader is laser focused” on winning back the majority.

So far, none of the 11 Senate Democrats up in 2008 have announced plans to retire, while Allard is the lone Republican so far to opt against trying for another six-year term.

Republicans already are bracing for a bitter battle with the Democrats over Allard’s seat, given the Democrats’ recent political inroads in Colorado.

Neither party is taking their incumbents for granted. Republicans, in particular, are mindful of their Members stepping down, given they must hold onto all of their current seats and capture two more to retake control of the chamber in two years.

Sources indicated that Senate GOP leaders are only seriously concerned about a handful of seats, including those held by Coleman and Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Gordon Smith (Ore.) and John Sununu (N.H.).

GOP leaders are keeping an eye on Senators who may opt to retire at the end of the Congress, such as Alexander and Sens. Thad Cochran (Miss.), John Warner (Va.), Elizabeth Dole (N.C.), Pete Domenici (N.M.) and Ted Stevens (Alaska).

Dole, Domenici and Stevens all have said they plan to run again.

“My decision is to run for the Senate,” Domenici said last week. “You know that.”

Others are less definite. Warner, who is up for a sixth term in 2008 and is extremely popular in his home state, said last week he has gotten the sell from McConnell and Ensign but is taking his time talking to his constituents before he makes a final decision.

“I have met with them previously, and told them that I lean in that direction [of running],” Warner said last week. “I want to take some time and meet with people and get the opinions of my state. I like to have consultation.”

But Warner was quick to note: “I have high confidence in them as a team and their willingness to help those of us who are up in ’08.”

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