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Cooper Touted in N.C. to Challenge Dole

Democrats eager to target Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) believe they have more than one top-tier challenger to recruit.

No one has declared his candidacy yet, though Rep. Brad Miller (D) seems to be on the verge of announcing his plans.

But many Democrats in North Carolina and Washington, D.C., are beginning to zero in on state Attorney General Roy Cooper (D) as a particularly strong pick, and they are urging him to enter the race.

Cooper, who is serving his second term, was thrust into the national spotlight by his office’s investigation into the handling of the rape case brought against several lacrosse players at Duke University — and ultimately dropped.

The case saturated the cable news channels for months and Cooper’s April news conference revealing his findings was carried live.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee does not discuss recruiting, but a state party official confirmed that Cooper, and many others, are in the committee’s sights.

“We have a lot of interesting candidates, and I hope [Cooper] will consider running,” said Caroline Valand, executive director of the North Carolina Democratic Party.

Other possibilities include Gov. Mike Easley, former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Hugh Shelton, state Sen. Kay Hagan and state Rep. Grier Martin — though Easley is unlikely to run.

For his part, Cooper has not shown any interest in the Senate race — at least not publicly.

“The attorney general is planning to run for re-election as attorney general” next year, Cooper spokeswoman Noelle Talley said Friday.

Miller is openly mulling a bid but has not declared his candidacy.

“He is making a decision,” said LuAnn Canipe, Miller’s spokeswoman. “He’s talking to a number of people in North Carolina and here in Washington, but he’s made no decision.”

The stepped-up activity surrounding the search for an opponent for Dole comes at a time when some Democrats believe that the first-term Senator, despite her enduring popularity, could be vulnerable to the right kind of challenger given some of the demographic and political challenges taking place in North Carolina.

But Rebecca Fisher, spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Democrats are just aimlessly throwing pasta against the wall to see what sticks.

“We keep hearing different names coming from that side as far as names they’re looking at,” Fisher said. “We’re not worried about Sen. Dole’s re-election.”

Valand says the NRSC should be, and it’s early enough in the cycle that Democrats do not have to rally around one person yet.

“It took the DSCC six months to recruit [now-Sen.] Claire McCaskill [D-Mo.]” in the past cycle, she said. “I know they’ll be persistent in North Carolina and whoever the nominee is can beat [Dole] because she’s vulnerable.”

Fisher concedes that Dole entered the cycle on somewhat shaky ground but said the former NRSC chairwoman quickly stabilized her reputation — and her financial base.

“Sen. Dole spent a lot of time focused on the NRSC last cycle and that put her at a bit of a disadvantage, but she’s been raising a lot of money and spending time [in the state] making up for that, and that’s discouraged a lot of Democrats from running,” Fisher said.

Through March 31, Dole had more than $1.5 million in her campaign account after raising more than $1.7 million in the first three months of 2007. Miller had just $77,000 on hand.

Valand said that Dole is still weak because of her absenteeism in the Tarheel State.

“Where in the world is Liddy Dole?” Varland asked. “She doesn’t come home much.”

Fisher said a recent poll conducted by Elon University that put Dole’s job-approval rating at 52 percent “squashed any talk of” her being an easy target. The poll of 476 adults was conducted April 16-19 and had a 4.6-point margin of error.

DSCC spokesman Matt Miller said two other recent polls signaled trouble for Dole.

Public Policy Polling of Raleigh released an independent survey on April 12 that had only 43 percent of voters saying they approved of how the former head of the Red Cross was handling her job in the Senate. That poll surveyed 556 likely voters April 11 and had a 4.1-point margin of error. In a hypothetical matchup with Miller, Dole led him 44 percent to 33 percent.

A Garin Hart Yang Research Group poll conducted in February for the DSCC put Dole’s re-election rate at just 35 percent and her job approval rating at 49 percent.

“People know Elizabeth Dole and they don’t like what they have seen,” Miller said.

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