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GOP Leaders Boost Dole

Colleagues Replenish Ex-NRSC Chief’s War Chest

Even though Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) is expected to have a safe road to re-election in 2008, Senate GOP leaders have included her in a select group of vulnerable Republican incumbents for whom they are soliciting early and extra financial support.

The leadership has asked GOP Senators to give the maximum primary contribution — $5,000 apiece — from their leadership political action committees to Dole and four other in-cycle Senators by the end of the month, the close of the first fundraising quarter. Leaders have included Dole not because they believe she is in peril this cycle, but because they say the 2006 National Republican Senatorial Committee chairwoman began the year with very little cash on hand.

The NRSC wants to ensure Dole is on solid ground at the outset of the cycle — allowing the committee to “take her off the table” and not have to worry about her financial footing as the election nears, several Republican leadership sources said.

“She isn’t someone any of us consider to be in danger of losing re-election,” said a Senate GOP leadership aide. “That said, she contributed a lot of money from her own campaign accounts to the NRSC. There’s a sense we should team up and help her.”

At the end of 2006, Dole had just $245,000 on hand, a relatively paltry sum for an incumbent Senator heading into re-election. Sources close to Dole say not only did the North Carolina Republican do very little personal fundraising during her two years at the helm of the NRSC, but she also transferred more than $400,000 from her own campaign accounts to help bolster the NRSC’s coffers.

“Sen. Dole focused on her colleagues and not herself over that past two years, so I think it’s safe to say that her colleagues are focusing on her,” said a senior GOP Senate aide. “She will have the funds she needs to communicate her message effectively in North Carolina.”

Current NRSC Chairman John Ensign (Nev.) has put in place a detailed roadmap to try to reclaim the Senate majority in two years, setting an overall fundraising target of $119 million for the committee — the same amount raised by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in the previous cycle. Part of Ensign’s strategy includes calling on fellow Republican Senators to raise and give record amounts of money to their colleagues.

Dole is part of that initial NRSC fundraising focus, along with top Democratic targets Sens. Norm Coleman (Minn.), Susan Collins (Maine), Gordon Smith (Ore.) and John Sununu (N.H.). Unlike Dole, who comes from a conservative-leaning state, Coleman, Collins, Smith and Sununu all represent swing states that many political experts believe could tilt to the Democrats this cycle.

Brian Nick, an adviser to Dole’s re-election campaign, said last week that while Dole appreciates her colleagues’ support, she isn’t relying on it to secure another term. Dole, he said, is a “bulldog” when it comes to campaigning and “is on top of her game when it comes to popularity in the state.”

“She is taking nothing for granted in this election,” Nick said. “She’s spent hours on top of her Senate duties raising money.”

A recent poll released by Dole’s campaign suggested the first-term Senator is in a good position heading into the cycle, with 63 percent of North Carolina voters saying they approved of the job she’s doing.

A survey commissioned by the DSCC in early February, however, suggested that just 35 percent of voters definitely would vote to give Dole a second term. Twenty-six percent of respondents said they would consider backing someone else, and 23 percent said they would definitely vote against Dole.

“Dole is incredibly weak at home, both because of her own poor performance as Senator and because of a hostile environment,” DSCC spokesman Matthew Miller said last week. “She’s going to need a lot more than national Republican money to bail her out.”

But at least so far, no Democrat has announced plans to challenge her. A few possibilities include Reps. Bob Etheridge and Brad Miller, or one of three Democratic statewide officials, Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue, Treasurer Richard Moore or Attorney General Roy Cooper.

Perdue and Moore have announced plans to run for governor in 2008, but some Democrats speculate that one could be persuaded to jump into the Senate race. North Carolina first lady Mary Easley, a lawyer and former university administrator, also is mentioned as a possible candidate.

Dole secured her seat in 2002 by winning 54 percent of the vote against former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, now president of the University of North Carolina.

Whoever emerges on the ballot this time around, Nick said Dole isn’t sitting idle: “That’s not how she’s approaching this campaign. She’s assuming a top [Democrat] gets in the race and that’s how she’s preparing right out of the gate.”

For months, many political insiders speculated that Dole, 68, might retire at the end of the 110th Congress. Not only had she had done relatively little personal fundraising in the previous cycle, but some Republicans wondered whether the senior Senator from North Carolina — at the helm of the NRSC during the brutal 2006 elections — had the will to take on another six-year term.

Dole chaired the fundraising panel during the extraordinary Democratic takeover of Congress in which the power of the Senate shifted from a 55-45 GOP majority to a 51-49 Democratic advantage. The cycle proved devastating for Republicans overall, but Dole in particular struggled at the NRSC to gain traction with donors and compete against a powerful DSCC chaired by Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.).

With that in mind, Senate Republican leaders are hoping to get an early edge on 2008. Dole, GOP sources say, is just one example of how leadership is looking to shore up as many incumbent campaigns as possible.

“Certainly, the more races that we can square away first, the better,” said a Senate Republican leadership aide.

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