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Young State Senator Aims at Inhofe in Oklahoma

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) is bracing for a tough re-election fight next year, with Democrats enthusiastic and looking to play in the conservative Sooner State even as Republicans remain bullish on the incumbent’s prospects for a fourth term.

Republicans contend Inhofe is primed for victory, noting the Senator’s legislative record and a statewide political atmosphere that remains favorable to conservative politicians.

But Democrats say an upset could be in the making — and party operatives in Washington, D.C., believe they have a viable candidate to build a campaign around in state Sen. Andrew Rice (D).

“Jim Inhofe has compiled one of the most radical voting records in the Senate, and Andrew Rice is a quality candidate who we expect will run a strong campaign,” said Matthew Miller, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

After some doubts about his political future, Inhofe announced at an Oklahoma Republican Party convention earlier this year that he is seeking re-election in 2008. The Senator has a campaign operation up and running, and he closed the second quarter with a solid $1.4 million in the bank on the strength of $738,000 in contributions.

Republicans acknowledge that Democrats in Oklahoma are energized — much as they are nationally — and are cognizant of the Democratic Party’s success there last year. Democrats won most statewide offices, including the gubernatorial race for the second election in a row.

But Republicans also note that the GOP made gains in the state Senate, winning enough seats to share control of the chamber for the first time in history, while maintaining control of the state House. And GOP operatives argue that it is “conservative” Democrats who tend to advance in statewide races in Oklahoma, which they say proves the state is still favorable territory for a conservative Republican like Inhofe.

“Oklahoma is still a pretty conservative state — and one that the Republican candidate can and should do well in if he communicates a message of the conservative values of less government, more individual freedom and national security and national defense,” Inhofe campaign manager Josh Kivett said. “Those are the things that Jim focuses on.”

As many as a handful of Democrats are currently eyeing the race beyond Rice, including state Attorney General Drew Edmondson and former Lt. Gov. Jack Mildren, who has been out of politics for a number of years but whose résumé includes playing quarterback for the University of Oklahoma. Edmondson and Mildren are likely to reveal their 2008 plans sometime in September, if not sooner.

Gov. Brad Henry (D) — who convincingly won a second term last year over then-Rep. Ernest Istook (R) and would probably make the most formidable Democratic nominee — is not interested in running for Senate next year, according to Democratic operatives.

A spokesman for Henry last week declined to completely rule out a 2008 Senate bid but said in the strongest terms possible without saying “never” that the governor is inclined to keep his job in Oklahoma City.

Meanwhile, Rice was in Washington last month to meet with DSCC Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and other committee officials. The 34-year-old first-term state Senator believes Inhofe is vulnerable on issues ranging from the environment to the Iraq War, claiming that the Republican incumbent has become too conservative — even by Oklahoma standards.

“He’s gone Washington. He’s gotten quite rigid and offensive in the way he operates as a public official,” Rice, of Oklahoma City, said last week in a telephone interview. “The word I hear over and over from people — unsolicited — is ‘embarrassment.’”

Rice described himself as a progressive on some issues and a centrist on others. He said he is conservative on issues such as immigration and gun control, but more liberal on civil liberties and economic issues.

Rice’s brother died in the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, and that fact is likely to be a major theme of his campaign against Inhofe. Rice argued that while the United States has been busy fighting the Iraq War, al-Qaida terrorists in Afghanistan have been allowed to proliferate — and Rice said that will cost Inhofe at the polls next year.

“My motivation, the reason I’m involved in politics, is that my brother was killed in the towers in New York,” Rice said. “We’re going to be aggressive. The Republicans think their strength is national security. They’re going to be held accountable” for their policies.

Some Republicans acknowledge that Inhofe’s rhetoric has been a bit strident — for example, he caustically questions the long-term environmental threat from global warming — but they argue that the fundamentals of Oklahoma politics have not changed.

Sooner State voters, GOP operatives claim, will vote for a Republican who might be slightly more conservative than they would prefer long before they vote for a candidate like Rice — who they assert is much closer ideologically to Democrats in Washington than he is to Democrats in Oklahoma.

Republicans’ confidence in Inhofe also stems from his reputation as a tough campaigner — “one of the toughest campaigners in the country,” according to one Republican operative based in the Sooner State.

“Oklahomans are proud of their senior Senator, and we have no doubt they will re-elect him next November to continue the fight for the issues that are important to the state,” said Rebecca Fisher, spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

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