- The Washington Times - Monday, May 29, 2000

Republican chances to pick up three Democratic-held Senate seats have improved lately, though some Republican incumbents are still struggling to overcome tough challenges in this year's senatorial contests.

Polls showed Republicans were leading in at least two races for Senate seats held by the Democrats in Nevada and Virginia. They also showed surprising early strength in New York for Republican Rep. Rick A. Lazio, who has quickly moved into a dead heat in his race against Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Republican prospects were slightly improved in two other Democratic-held Senate seats in New Jersey and Nebraska. Both races were rated toss-ups by election strategists.

But Republican senators remain in danger in some states, including Michigan, Delaware and Washington. An open seat in Florida that is being vacated by Republican Sen. Connie Mack is also rated a toss-up.

The main event in this year's 33 Senate races is unarguably in New York. Mr. Lazio, whose recent entry into the race after New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's abrupt withdrawal, has dramatically changed the complexion of the contest.

A mere five days after Mr. Lazio entered the race as a largely unknown quantity outside of his Long Island district, independent pollster John Zogby was out with a survey that showed Mr. Lazio trailing Mrs. Clinton by just two points, less than the poll's margin of error.

Notably, the poll also shows Mr. Lazio pulling ahead among upstate voters, 46.1 percent to 41.4 percent, and into a virtual tie among independents.

Elsewhere, Republicans have distinct advantages in at least three other states that could offset any losses among their incumbents.

The Republicans' most likely gain is in Nevada, where Republican John Ensign, who lost an earlier Senate battle by a mere 428 votes, is the favorite to win the seat being vacated by Democratic Sen. Richard Bryan.

Mr. Ensign leads attorney Ed Bernstein by an impressive 54 percent to 32 percent in the latest Mason-Dixon poll. Elections analyst Stuart Rothenberg calls the race "an excellent Republican takeover opportunity."

Another promising target for the GOP is Virginia, where Democratic Sen. Charles S. Robb, seeking his third term, is regarded as his party's weakest incumbent and has been consistently running behind George F. Allen, the Republican ex-governor.

Mr. Robb won re-election in 1994 in a three-way race with 46 percent of the vote but his favorability ratings have been declining ever since.

Mr. Allen, on the other hand, is one of the state's most popular leaders at a time when the Republicans hold all other statewide elected offices and its legislature. He has $3.7 million in the bank, compared with $2.3 million for Mr. Robb.

Last month, an independent state poll by Richmond television station WTTB showed Mr. Allen leading by 12 points.

The GOP's prospects are also looking a little stronger in New Jersey, where former Gov. James Florio appears to be losing his nomination bid to a wealthy Wall Street businessman, Jon Corzine, who has spent $20 million in a TV ad blitz.

Polls show Mr. Corzine leading Mr. Florio 56 percent to 30 percent in their primary battle to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg.

But some Republican strategists think the party's chances are better against Mr. Corzine, who is running on a tax-and-spend agenda that is even further to the left of the liberal Mr. Florio.

As a campaigner, he also has shown himself to be prone to making blunders in his remarks, including some inappropriate jokes about Italian-Americans that he had to apologize for last month.

Rep. Bob Franks is the favorite in the field of four seeking the Republican Senate nomination.

Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey's decision to retire from politics has also opened up another possible seat for the GOP in a state where Republicans hold all the other statewide offices.

Former Gov. Ben Nelson, the Democratic nominee seeking to replace Mr. Kerrey,lost his first Senate bid to Chuck Hagel in 1996. This time he will face state Attorney General Don Stenberg, whom Mr. Hagel defeated in the 1996 primary.

But the Democrats also have several promising opportunities to pick up Senate seats as well, including Florida, where Republican Sen. Connie Mack is not seeking re-election.

Republican Rep. Bill McCollum, who helped present the case for President Clinton's impeachment in the Senate, is battling state Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher for the chance to take on Democratic state Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson in November.

Mr. Gallagher leads Mr. Nelson in the latest polls, but Mr. McCollum does not.

Helping the Republicans, however, is an independent bid by state Rep. Willie Logan, a black state lawmaker who has been in a bitter feud with Democratic leaders, and who could cost Mr. Nelson votes he needs to win.

Meanwhile, Republican Sen. Spencer Abraham of Michigan is in a bitter contest with Rep. Debbie Stabenow, a liberal Democrat who is being aided by a barrage of outside advocacy ads paid for by an anti-immigration group.

The ads by the Federation for American Immigration Reform have attacked Mr. Abraham for sponsoring legislation to increase the number of skilled immigrant workers allowed into the country to alleviate labor shortages in the high-tech industry.

Mr. Abraham has attacked the ads as "racist" and several TV stations have refused to run them, although Miss Stabenow has not repudiated them. The latest EPIC/MRA poll shows Mr. Abraham with a slight lead of 38 percent to 35 percent.

Among other vulnerable Republican incumbents, recent polls show Sens. Rod Grams of Minnesota and John Ashcroft of Missouri leading their challengers, while Sens. William V. Roth Jr. of Delaware and Slade Gorton of Washington appear to be in trouble.

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