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Hutchison May Drop From Race

No. 3 GOP Slot at Stake

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) is expected to decide today whether to remain in the three-way race for GOP Conference chairman, with sources speculating she will opt to forgo the candidacy and keep her job as head of the Republican Policy Committee.

If Hutchison chooses to abandon a bid for the No. 3 leadership post, the Conference race would narrow to just two contenders, Sens. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and Richard Burr (N.C.). Alexander and Burr insisted Monday that they will stay in the hunt until Senators cast votes in a secret ballot session Thursday morning.

“Sen. Hutchison will continue her deliberations about the race and is expected to make a decision Tuesday as to whether she will publicly seek the Conference chairman position,” said a Republican source close to the Texas Senator.

Foremost on Hutchison’s mind, according to sources, is whether she feels she would be more effective in her current policy job or as the head of the Conference, charged with leading the Senate Republicans’ messaging efforts. Hutchison, according to those sources, has received prodding to run from several Senators who believe the party would be well-served to install a woman in the GOP communications post heading into 2008.

One Republican leadership aide said those attributes, plus her contributions to Senate candidates and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, are of note in a leadership bid. This staffer said Hutchison “has already proven to be an effective member of leadership” and brings a “unique viewpoint as a woman” to the Senate GOP.

Yet others suggested Monday that if Hutchison is still considering whether to run, she probably hasn’t locked up the necessary votes to win. Several Republicans also said it may be too late to make a public pronouncement about her plans and expect to walk away victorious.

“You really have to want the position and campaign hard,” one Republican Senate aide said. “You can’t expect it to be handed to you. The fact it’s taken so long means she’s probably not running. If she does [run], she will have an awful lot of work to do.”

Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.) now holds the Conference job, but he is running unopposed to succeed Sen. Trent Lott (Miss.) as the Minority Whip. Lott made a surprise announcement last week that he is resigning his Senate seat by the end of the year.

Since then, rumors have been flying about who will replace Lott, and now Kyl as Conference chairman. Alexander, Burr and Hutchison have been making calls and — assuming the trio runs — are expected to hold meetings with Senators throughout the week to try to line up a majority of the party’s 49 votes. As of Monday evening, several well-placed GOP sources speculated that roughly a dozen Senators remain uncommitted while the rest have privately allied with one of the candidates.

While not discussing details, Tom Ingram, chief of staff to Alexander, said Monday that his boss — who lost by one vote to Lott for Whip in 2006 — feels well-positioned. He added that Alexander has no plans to step out of the race before votes are cast.

“We’ve been working hard since Sunday night,” Ingram said. “Our intent is to keep slogging it out until it’s over.”

Similarly, Chris Walker, spokesman for Burr, said the North Carolina Senator will stay in the hunt.

“He’s in the race,” Walker said. “We’ve talked about that before. If the position becomes available, he will run. He is running. He has every intention to stay until the end —absolutely.”

Burr’s candidacy is being fueled in part by Lott himself, who is widely believed to have given Burr notice of his resignation and to be helping him corral votes. Also on Burr’s side is a band of junior conservative Senators led by Sens. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.) and Tom Coburn (Okla.), both of whom served with Burr in the House.

Alexander, meantime, is expected to win the backing of many veteran Republicans, including influential Sen. Bob Bennett (Utah), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (Ky.) closest confidant. The Tennessee Republican is also likely to win solid backing from the Senate’s GOP moderates.

While McConnell quietly backed Alexander for Whip against Lott, he insisted Monday that he has no stake in this week’s elections.

“I have no predictions nor any involvement,” McConnell told reporters. “I read in a couple of your publications that there has been some — there is not.”

If Hutchison walks away from the race for Conference chairman, she would stay at her post as Republican Policy Committee chairwoman, a position she assumed in January. Hutchison already has said she will not seek a fifth term in 2012 and is widely expected to run for Texas governor in 2010.

That possible gubernatorial bid is viewed as a key factor in her decision whether to run for Conference, given that a loss could serve as fodder for any prospective opponent in Texas.

One well-placed Republican said that “given her focus on a potential governor’s race,” it wouldn’t “come as a surprise” to fellow Senators if she opted against running in the hotly contested Conference contest.

A second GOP Senate aide echoed those sentiments, saying: “I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a two-person race and I wouldn’t be shocked if before votes are cast it becomes a one-person race.”

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