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Menendez on Deck at DSCC?

By naming Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.) vice chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, current Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) may be quietly laying the groundwork for his prospective successor at the fundraising arm, key party sources said Wednesday.

Schumer, the two-time DSCC chairman who already has made his mark by helping Democrats recapture the Senate in 2006, announced Tuesday that Menendez would take on the No. 2 DSCC post — a position that the committee describes as involving “all aspects of the committee’s work to strengthen the Democratic majority in the Senate, including candidate recruitment, strategy, fundraising and campaigning for Democratic candidates.”

Like Schumer, Menendez is known as one of the Democrats’ most ambitious Senators as well as a prolific fundraiser and aggressive campaigner.

Democratic sources say Menendez’s recent appointment — a decision made by Schumer and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) — makes clear the New Jersey freshman and prominent Hispanic is an early favorite to take over the DSCC in 2010. As the party leader, Reid is ultimately charged with selecting Schumer’s replacement at the helm of the party committee next cycle.

“Over the next year and a half, [Menendez] really has the chance to audition for the position,” said one Democratic leadership aide. “There’s no doubt he would have the inside track.”

Menendez said in an interview Wednesday that his current focus is to help Schumer and Reid recruit candidates, raise money and promote a party agenda that helps Democrats increase their hold on the Senate beyond their current 51 seats. Still, Menendez wouldn’t rule out the possibility of chairing the DSCC down the road, saying that if he’s successful as the vice chairman and “the opportunity comes up, then I certainly would consider it.”

“Right now I am not going to think about anything other than doing everything I can to help Sen. Schumer and Harry Reid broaden our majority,” Menendez said. “If I do it well, and obviously there’s an opportunity, then we’ll see. My goal now is to achieve a broader majority and pursue an American agenda that is much different than this administration’s.”

Clearly, Menendez has won Schumer’s early confidence, and in a brief interview this week Schumer called his addition to the DSCC operation “a blessing. ” Schumer said his New Jersey neighbor is “an amazing talent, smart, hardworking and good with people.”

Schumer and Menendez have teamed up in the past both on the campaign trail and on legislation, including when the two helped lead the Democrats’ response to the Bush administration’s decision more than a year ago to hand over management of several U.S. ports by Dubai Ports World. Menendez and Schumer also later spearheaded Democrats’ efforts for stronger security at U.S. ports.

Menendez said he’s honored to be working with Schumer at the DSCC in a position he described as partly political, with candidate recruitment and fundraising, but also partly strategic. Menendez has had a hand in both arenas previously in his tenure as the House Democratic Caucus chairman, when he was responsible not only for helping elect Democratic candidates but also for charting the party message and agenda.

“I am looking to learn a great deal from him as well as looking forward to working with him,” Menendez said of Schumer. “This is a tremendous opportunity.”

In a break from 2006 when the DSCC enlisted five regional vice chairmen, the committee is bringing on just one No. 2 this cycle with Menendez. The DSCC had just one vice chairman in 2004 and 2002.

Menendez was among those Democratic Senators named as possible DSCC chairman for 2008 when it remained unclear whether Schumer would agree to take on another two-year tour of duty at the fundraising panel. Schumer ultimately agreed to stay on, and as an added incentive, Reid offered the outspoken New Yorker a second leadership job as vice chairman of the Caucus, the No. 3 leader.

Senate Democratic sources say regardless of whether Menendez got the No. 2 post this cycle, he likely would have been considered among an elite group of possible committee chairmen in 2010. “He’s a natural candidate for it anyway,” said the Democratic leadership source.

Other possible DSCC chairmen could include some of the other newly elected 2006 Senators, such as Jim Webb (Va.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio) or Benjamin Cardin (Md.), or the more experienced Sen. Debbie Stabenow (Mich.).

Menendez first came to the Senate in early 2006 after securing the appointment to fulfill the remaining year of the term of current New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (D). Corzine vacated his Senate seat to take the governorship, and he tapped Menendez as his replacement. Menendez served in the House for nearly seven terms before moving to the Senate.

Whoever takes over the DSCC in the next cycle undoubtedly will have a heavy burden following Schumer, who raised an extraordinary $120 million over the 2006 cycle and is expected to exceed that amount this cycle. Schumer also helped the Democrats exceed expectations with the six-seat gain that gave them the majority.

And while 2010 may not be as electorally daunting as 2006, Democrats will have their work cut out for them as they look to defend some 15 seats and try to take on the Republicans’ 19. That’s an increase from this cycle, where Democrats have the advantage of having just 12 seats in play compared with the GOP’s 21 slots.

Looking to this cycle, Democrats also have challenges — chief among them trying to raise millions against the backdrop of the most expensive presidential cycle in history. Menendez said beyond that, he hopes he can help Schumer promote a message that strikes a “responsive chord” across the country as well as helping the party’s outreach to different regions of the country with growing Hispanic populations.

What “I am going to do is complement what Chuck Schumer has done,” Menendez said. “I’m going to give him extra firepower in doing what he does so well.”

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