- The Washington Times - Monday, September 27, 2004

Senate Republican candidates’ prospects improved this month, but enough major battleground races have tightened to give Democrats the hope of keeping any Republican gains to a minimum, campaign analysts say.

With the Republicans’ strongest candidates winning primaries in Florida, Colorado, Oklahoma and elsewhere and with the Democrats having to defend five open seats in Southern states, election analysts are still bullish about the party’s chances of possibly strengthening its 51-48 senatorial majority. There also is one Democrat-leaning independent.

“Our current assessment of the fight for the Senate puts the Republicans back in the driver’s seat,” congressional campaign analyst Stuart Rothenberg said in a recent review of the Senate races that will be decided in six weeks.

In a few races, though, Democratic prospects have improved somewhat, and Mr. Rothenberg said Democrats have a long shot at “taking the Senate in November,” but to do that they would need to sweep all seven tossup states.

“That remains a very tall order,” he said.

At least two of the five open Democratic seats in the South were expected to fall into the Republican column. Rep. Johnny Isakson was the front-runner in Georgia over Democrat Rep. Denise L. Majette, a one-term congresswoman who trailed by more than 10 points and was given little chance of winning.

In Republican-leaning South Carolina, Republican Rep. Jim DeMint led state Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum, even in Democratic polls. But Mr. DeMint has come under attack from Mrs. Tenenbaum for a proposal to replace the income tax and the IRS with a national sales tax.

In the election for Louisiana’s open Senate seat, three-term Rep. David Vitter, a Republican, has been the undisputed front-runner against his three Democratic opponents — Rep. Chris John, state Treasurer John Kennedy and state Rep. Arthur Morrell. Under state law, to win Nov. 2, a candidate must capture a majority in the race among several candidates from all parties, which the large number of hopefuls makes unlikely. The challenge, then, for Mr. Vitter will be the likely Dec. 4 runoff, a hurdle that past Republican Senate candidates have been unable to clear.

In Florida, Mel Martinez, Mr. Bush’s former Housing and Urban Development secretary who won a bruising primary last month, was in a dead heat against former state Education Commissioner Betty Castor, although he was expected to benefit from Florida’s large Hispanic vote.

“The general election looks close, but Martinez appears better-positioned for this fall,” Mr. Rothenberg said.

Still, Democratic strategists said there were plenty of other competitive Senate races where they thought they could score enough upsets to offset any losses in the South.

“No one here is arguing that this is a done deal, but Democrats in every single battleground state are within the margin of error or leading in the polls and are seeing developments in the states go their way,” said Cara Morris, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

There is little doubt that the Democrats will pick up the seat of retiring Republican Sen. Peter G. Fitzgerald of Illinois. State Sen. Barack Obama, who gave the keynote address to the Democratic National Convention in Boston, was running ahead of Republican Alan Keyes by better than a 2-to-1 margin in the polls.

In Oklahoma, former Rep. Tom Coburn, an obstetrician who has a reputation for a hard-hitting, outspoken campaign style, appeared to have the advantage over his Democratic opponent, Rep. Brad Carson. But Mr. Coburn was suddenly thrown on the defensive last week after becoming the subject of news stories that he sterilized underage women with their consent and possibly billing the surgical procedures to Medicaid.

In Colorado, beer mogul Pete Coors, in his first political campaign, was in a tough race against state Attorney General Ken Salazar, a popular Democrat.

A Rocky Mountain News poll had Mr. Salazar leading by 11 points last week, but other polls had it closer.

Democrats also point to the battle over another open seat, in North Carolina, where Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles holds a slight lead over Republican Rep. Richard M. Burr

In Alaska, Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski has been fighting charges of nepotism after her father, former Sen. Frank H. Murkowski, appointed her to the Senate after he won the governorship. She is opposed by former Gov. Tony Knowles, who has won two statewide races. The race is a virtual tie.

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