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Chairman Race Down to the Wire

While the race continued to narrow Wednesday, Republican Senators still appeared poised to elect Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) over Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.) as the next GOP Conference chairman when they meet behind closed doors today to fill holes in their leadership hierarchy.

Senators will convene at 9:30 a.m. in the Mansfield Room for the secret ballot elections, forced after Minority Whip Trent Lott (Miss.) announced plans to resign his Senate seat later this year. Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.) is running unopposed to replace Lott as Whip, but in so doing leaves open his No. 3 leadership post as Conference chairman.

Alexander and Burr have been seriously courting Senate votes for the Conference job for more than a week, but at an even more furious clip after a third candidate, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas), dropped from the race on Tuesday morning. Alexander commanded an early lead in the vote-getting, and Republican aides and Senators asserted Wednesday night that the Tennessean appeared to maintain that advantage heading into today’s session.

At the same time, however, Senators cautioned against ruling Burr out given leadership elections are done by secret ballot and often are unpredictable. Burr was spending much of the waning hours before the campaign working with his allies — largely conservatives and his freshman class of 2004 — to help knock the frontrunning Alexander out of the hunt.

Burr’s supporters wouldn’t discuss his numbers, but several knowledgeable Senate sources estimated he had as few as 10 Senators and possibly as many as 22. Alexander, meantime, was believed to have corralled at least 15 and as many as 26 Senate backers.

“I just think this is going to be close,” offered Sen. John Thune (S.D.), who has kept his alliance private. “They are both good candidates. They are well-liked. It’s coming down to a very competitive race.”

“These are two great candidates, really strong candidates,” Sen. Judd Gregg (N.H.) added.

Lott, who will leave the chamber and vacate his Whip job by Dec. 31, will not be allowed to vote in today’s contest — a disadvantage for Burr since Lott privately has been behind his candidacy. Another possible problem for Burr could arise if Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), who also is quietly supporting the North Carolina Republican, does not return from the presidential trail to cast a ballot.

Those two votes aside, Burr still appears to have ground to gain as he attempts to make a case for a fresh face in the Republican leadership. Burr, a solid conservative, has attempted to paint a contrast with Alexander by arguing that as Conference chairman — charged with crafting the party message — he could best present Republicans as an alternative to the majority Democrats.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), one of Burr’s supporters, said Wednesday that “both sides think they have the votes to win,” but he’s hopeful Burr would prevail. DeMint said Burr “can pull the Conference together. He’s not been a troublemaker, he’s been constructive in the way he works.”

Indeed, that’s one of the concerns privately voiced about Burr — that as one of the Senate’s former House Members, he stands with many of the flamethrowers in the chamber.

And some conservatives, while continuing to push for Burr, privately are frustrated by his handling of the race, arguing that he has not done enough to position himself for a win.

Several conservatives argued that many of the knocks on Burr — including his alleged lack of engagement on issues and a lack of a media presence — continue to dog him in the leadership fight with Alexander. “He hasn’t really been engaged the last three years,” one GOP aide complained, adding that he has done little to change that perception over the past week.

For instance, several Republicans argued that while Burr has been making the rounds with other Members and presenting a solid case, he has not been aggressive with Capitol Hill media outlets, which would demonstrate his ability to effectively run the Conference’s message operations.

Meanwhile, Alexander has sought to convince his colleagues that he would best serve the Conference since he has the ability to work across the aisle and would develop a GOP message that appeals to both Republicans and independents, critical to any elections gains.

But that selling point also has been cited as one of Alexander’s biggest weaknesses, as some Senators believe he is too willing to compromise rather than take strong stands on issues important to the party.

Alexander reiterated Wednesday that he’s not taking anything for granted and would continue to make his case to his colleagues until vote time. But he seemed optimistic that he had the necessary support to carry a majority of the 48 Senators eligible to vote.

“I continue to receive new commitments, which I appreciate,” he said. “I’m hopeful my colleagues will give me a chance to make the Conference as effective as possible and the Senate as effective as possible.”

Alexander has been in this predicament before, squaring off against Lott in a nip-and-tuck leadership race for GOP Whip last November. In that case, Alexander was similarly assured of his standing heading into the election — and even believed he had a cushion of a few votes — but ultimately fell to Lott by one vote.

For his part, Burr kept a low profile this week, refusing press interviews and keeping narrow counsel. Those close to him refused to discuss any details of his strategy or lay out what case he is making to his fellow Senators.

Rumors even circulated throughout the day that Burr may join Hutchison in exiting the race early, but that speculation was quickly refuted by his allies. One source close to Burr said Wednesday: “Sen. Burr is committed to working to get every vote until the time of the vote. He’s in the race tomorrow.”

Beyond his GOP class of 2004 and some conservatives, Burr is expected to win the favor of many of McCain’s Senate presidential supporters. In addition to McCain and DeMint, he also has several public backers in Sens. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), Tom Coburn (Okla.) and Elizabeth Dole (N.C.).

For his part, Alexander is believed to have rounded up most of the Republican moderates and many of the Senate’s ranking committee members and old bulls. Among his public endorsers are Sens. Bob Bennett (Utah) — Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (Ky.) closest confidant — Norm Coleman (Minn.), Orrin Hatch (Utah) and Bob Corker (Tenn.).

And while by nearly every account the votes seem to fall to his favor, Alexander chief of staff Tom Ingram said his boss wasn’t leaving anything to chance: “We’re not going to breathe easy until it’s over tomorrow.”

John Stanton contributed to this report.