- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 15, 2001

The White House is making an all-out, coordinated effort to win back the Senate next year, including hands-on candidate recruitment, big-money presidential fund-raisers and keeping Republican retirements to a minimum.
The White House has been aggressively wooing stronger Republican candidates in a number of upcoming Senate races. One of them, Rep. John Thune, appears likely to challenge freshman Sen. Tim Johnson, South Dakota Democrat, who has been trailing Mr. Thune in the polls.
President Bush's political operatives are also urging Elizabeth Dole, 65, to run in her native state of North Carolina if Sen. Jesse Helms, who will be 80 in October, decides to retire.
But a number of Republicans are also vulnerable.
Tovah Ravitz, communications director for the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, yesterday listed Republican Sens. Robert C. Smith of New Hampshire, Gordon H. Smith of Oregon and Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas among "the top tier of pickup opportunities for us." All have seen their poll numbers drop in the past year.
With the Democrats holding a 50-49 edge, with one independent, and the fate of Mr. Bush's future agenda on the line, it is too early to know who the challengers will be in many of the key Senate races. But the Republicans would need a net gain of only one seat to reclaim the Senate and Republican operatives have promised to provide Mr. Thune with "whatever it takes" to defeat Mr. Johnson.
"The biggest development is that Thune appears to be ready to run for the Senate and if that's true, it dramatically changes the race for that seat," said elections analyst Stuart Rothenberg, whose newsletter, the Rothenberg Report, closely tracks congressional races.
"If Thune runs, it will boost GOP prospects for the cycle considerably," he said.
Besides South Dakota, the Democrats have several other incumbents who may also face tough challenges in 2002. Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, under federal investigation in a corruption case, has seen his approval ratings plunge, and former Rep. Bob Franks, who ran a strong race for the Senate last year, may oppose him.
Sen. Jean Carnahan, Missouri Democrat, appointed to her seat after her husband, Gov. Mel Carnahan, won it weeks after being killed in a plane crash, is in a virtual tie in the polls with former Republican Rep. Jim Talent. The 76-year-old widow with no prior political experience is the only Senate Democrat up for re-election who has yet to say whether she will run.
Republicans may also have trouble next year with retirements. There are widespread rumors that several veteran Republican senators may decide not to run again, including Sens. Phil Gramm of Texas, 59; Ted Stevens of Alaska, 77; and Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, 69. If so, Republicans may end up with more open seats than they bargained for in the midterm elections, when the party holding the White House often loses seats.
There is also speculation in Republican circles that Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, 58, is tired of the Senate and may not run again. If he does run, he would be a shoo-in, but his reluctance to raise money for a campaign has only fed that speculation.
"The Republicans may have fewer incumbents running next year, which means there would be greater opportunities for us," Ms. Ravitz said yesterday.
"I think things are going our way but it is going to be close, within a couple of seats," she said.
Making things more difficult than usual for the Republicans next year is the arithmetic. Republicans will have to defend 20 of the 34 seats that are up next year.
"Historical trends tilt toward the Democrats, but not dramatically. I still think the Senate is up for grabs. Either party could gain a seat or two," Mr. Rothenberg said.
But Mr. Bush has committed himself to beefing up the Republican numbers in Congress, especially in the Senate, which allows the Democrats to block his legislative agenda. He flew to Colorado yesterday to speak at a major fund-raiser for Sen. Wayne Allard, who has been on the GOP's "watch lists" but has come up in the polls lately.
White House officials said that he plans to attend a number of other Senate fund-raisers this year in the months to come.
Mr. Bush's recent legislative successes in the House, and his own rise in the polls, may help him reclaim the Senate, Mr. Rothenberg said yesterday.
"Bush's standing has improved with his patients' bill of rights and energy bill passing the House. When you combine those two admittedly limited successes with the way Bush finessed the stem-cell-research issue, Republicans have to be more hopeful about 2002," he said.
Most worrisome for the Republicans is Mr. Helms' seat. The five-term senator has not said what his intentions are and seems in no hurry to do so.
If he does retire, former Republican Sen. Lauch Faircloth, who was defeated by Sen. John Edwards, a Democrat, in 1998, appears ready to jump into the race. Republicans think the 74-year-old Mr. Faircloth would again lose to the Democrats. Mrs. Dole, the White House favorite, has said she would consider running if Mr. Helms calls it quits.
In New Hampshire, Mr. Smith, who barely squeaked through to a second term with 49 percent of the vote in 1996, is expected to be challenged for the nomination in the Republican primary by Rep. John E. Sununu. Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, who is the likely Democratic nominee, is already running even with Mr. Smith in the latest polls.
The only Republican seat certain to be open belongs to Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who will be 99 in December. Rep. Lindsey Graham, who has raised nearly $2 million for the race, has a virtual lock on the party's nomination and, with no Democratic heavy hitters challenging him, appears to be the odds-on favorite to succeed the venerable Mr. Thurmond.

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