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Durbin-Schumer Race Appears to Quiet Down

The much-anticipated but largely theoretical Senate Majority Leader race between Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has been a favorite Washington parlor game as of late. But as Majority Leader Harry Reid’s political fortunes have improved, the deputies’ hopes of supplanting the Nevada Democrat have begun to fade.

For months, stories abounded about Schumer and Durbin subtly jockeying for the favor of their colleagues, as Reid’s approval rating cratered back home and his re-election odds appeared long.

But recent polls have shown Reid leading or at least in a statistical dead heat with his tea-party-backed GOP challenger, Sharron Angle — a serious improvement from just two months ago, when most surveys showed Angle besting him.

“At one point, it appeared that Harry would not keep his seat,” one Democratic Senator said. “At that point, there was much more activity [from Schumer and Durbin] that was subtle but still pretty obvious. I think you see much less of that now.”

Another Senator said the news that Reid may actually win a fifth term has been met “with a sigh of relief because everybody likes Schumer and Durbin, and nobody wanted to make that choice.”

There’s another reason Senate Democrats may be relieved: The internal jockeying for support has quieted.

In February, one Senate source told Roll Call that Durbin and Schumer were “clearly … in political overdrive with their colleagues.”

Sources said both men have been fond of standing up in caucus and praising select Members or touting their own work to help fundraise or push issues that were popular among Senators.

Several sources said they saw Schumer’s maneuvers as more overt. But they also said both Senators appeared too eager to seize on popular issues within the Conference, such as when both took up the mantle of filibuster reform, a favorite cause of many junior Senators from the 2006 and 2008 classes.

“The two of them were pushing forward on the same [policy] initiatives in different ways … in simultaneous efforts to woo the younger members and secure their votes,” another senior source said last week. “They battled over who could own issues. It was all very uncomfortable.”

Indeed, some Senators said there had been a fair amount of private joking — snarky comments such as “Somebody’s running for Majority Leader” — at caucus meetings when Schumer or Durbin would stand to speak and begin name-dropping those they had been working with recently. But those Senators said the quips have largely stopped.

One Democratic strategist said the intensity of speculation among lobbyists and consultants about Reid’s successor seemed to peak this spring but has “died down a little bit.”

Now, the strategist said, the conjecture has begun to focus on how much longer Reid, 70, might remain as Majority Leader, even if he wins re-election to another six-year term.

Of course, any rivalry between Durbin and Schumer has been hard to pin down because, some aides note, both Senators would likely be currying favor with Members as a natural part of their leadership jobs. Those aides argue that the Senators’ efforts recently may have been misinterpreted.

Durbin’s and Schumer’s offices declined comment for this story. In the past, both have denied any maneuvering, saying they fully expect Reid to be re-elected.

While Schumer’s four-year stint atop the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has created buzz that he has a natural base of support among those he helped elect in 2006 and 2008, Durbin has appeared to court Members by taking the lead on issues such as job creation or by trying to give Members a piece of the legislative pie.

Durbin and Schumer have also been using their leadership positions as the No. 2 and No. 3 Democrats, respectively, to help Members solve more mundane problems, such as snagging committee assignments or getting a pass on a difficult vote.

Though those activities likely won’t stop, they have not been as conspicuous recently, sources said.

“This has gone from the jousting between the two Members … to hardly noticeable — all in a matter of weeks,” the senior source said.

The reason for the change, Senators and aides said, is the fact that the last four public polls in Nevada — taken from mid- to late July — have shown Reid marginally ahead of Angle, with one poll showing him 7 points ahead. With the exception of one nonpartisan survey in May, Angle had been consistently ahead of Reid in polling.

Reid supporters say his fortunes have improved as a result of his campaign’s ability to finally define the opposition. Until the June 8 GOP primary, Reid, whose popularity in the state had plummeted, was essentially running against himself, Democrats noted. Plus, Angle is perhaps the most conservative of the Republican challengers, and Reid has been aggressive in painting her views — such as privatizing Social Security and eliminating some Cabinet agencies — as too extreme.

All that has led to a change in perception about Reid, as well as Durbin and Schumer.

“I’ve always thought Harry would win,” yet another Democratic Senator said.

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