- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 3, 2004

The presidential race is understandably dominating the national dialogue right now, but a less-visible battle for control of the Senate has suddenly turned into a much more dramatic nail-biter.

Campaign trackers believe the Senate will remain in Republican hands, possibly with a net gain of one or two seats, maybe more. But they also say Democratic prospects seem to have improved in some key open seats where Republican candidates have been thrown on the defensive in recent weeks.

In the open seats in the West, Republican candidates were behind in Oklahoma and Colorado, and former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles was lengthening his lead in North Carolina, one of five open Democratic seats in the South.

Senate elections analyst Stuart Rothenberg, who has been bullish on the GOP’s chances of holding the Senate and possibly picking up a seat or two, now warns the Republicans’ latest troubles “have improved Democratic prospects marginally.”

For the first time, Mr. Rothenberg says, “The Democrats have a shot at taking the Senate in November,” but to do so “they need a sweep of the tossup states. That remains a tall order.”

Here’s my take on the key races:

Republicans are still expected to pick up at least two or more of the five open Democratic seats in the South. Rep. Johnny Isakson remains the clear front-runner in Georgia over Democratic Rep. Denise Majette, who trails by more than 10 points. In South Carolina, Republican Rep. Jim DeMint leads state Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum, even in Democratic polling.

Mr. DeMint was thrown on the defensive last month when he came under attack from Mrs. Tenenbaum for a proposal to replace the income tax and the Internal Revenue Service with a national sales tax. But he responded quickly with an ad saying he had never voted for a tax increase in Congress and “never would” that effectively nuked the issue. South Carolina is expected to go heavily for President Bush, helping Mr. DeMint. This is definitely a pickup for the GOP.

In Florida, Mr. Bush’s former Housing and Urban Development secretary, Mel Martinez, was in a dead-heat against Democrat Betty Castor. Four back-to-back hurricanes have, for the time being, largely pushed politics out of the picture down there, but Mr. Martinez, a strong campaigner, is expected to benefit from the large Hispanic vote in November.

However, Mr. Bowles, making his second run in North Carolina for the Senate, was running 11 points ahead of Rep. Richard Burr, who has been frustratingly slow getting his campaign in gear. Mr. Bowles has gone to great lengths to distance himself from Mr. Clinton, giving Mr. Burr an opportunity to tie him into Mr. Clinton’s failure to deal with the global terrorist menace. But will he take it? I expect this race to tighten. It’s a tossup.

No one expected Republicans to be in any danger of losing Senate seats in Oklahoma and Colorado, two bastions of the GOP. But at this writing, the Democrats in both races have mounted the more effective campaigns.

In Oklahoma, former Rep. Tom Coburn is an obstetrician who once appeared to have the advantage over Democratic Rep. Brad Carson. But Mr. Coburn was clearly on the defensive last week as a result of a rash of news stories that he sterilized underage women, possibly billing the procedures to Medicaid.

The baby doctor explained all the procedures were done with the women’s consent and only after they had had several children and did not want to get pregnant again. So it remains to be seen whether the issue has legs.

Mr. Coburn has brought in some new strategists to shore up his lagging campaign and polls show the race remains tight. Mr. Bush has a huge lead in the state, where his coattails may help. Still, a tossup, with the edge to Mr. Carson.

The problem in Colorado is that Republican beer magnate Pete Coors, who never before sought elective office, is running against a popular, proven vote-getter, state Attorney General Ken Salazar, who has an 11-point lead, according to a Rocky Mountain News poll. Other polls show it closer. Mr. Coors can still make a comeback, but there isn’t much time.

In Alaska, a state Mr. Bush is expected to carry in a landslide, the race between Sen. Lisa Murkowski and former Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles is about even. To win, Mr. Knowles “must win a considerable chunk of Bush voters,” Mr. Rothenberg says. It could happen, but right now that’s a stretch.

Sleeper race of the year: Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin has won two terms by very narrow margins, 53 percent and 51 percent respectively. This time he faces hard-charging Republican businessman Tim Michels, who has enough resources to bankroll his own campaign, and is giving Mr. Feingold a hard time. At last count, Mr. Feingold led by the mid-single digits. There could be an upset in the making here.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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