Sunday, November 18, 2001

The pitched political battle for the narrowly divided Senate will likely turn on one or two close races in next year’s midterm elections, though neither party has the edge right now.
The struggle for majority control is so tight that when elections analyst Stuart Rothenberg drew up his scorecard earlier this month on how the 2002 Senate races are shaping up, he wrote “none” in his lean-toward-takeover columns for two the parties.
“Given candidate recruiting and initial vulnerability assessments, we could see either party making a small gain. In other words, anything is possible at this point,” Mr. Rothenberg said in his monthly newsletter, which closely tracks House and Senate races.
Republicans had held the Senate by a whisker, after losing five of their incumbents last year, which resulted in a 50-50 split. Vice President Richard B. Cheney, who presides over the Senate to break tie votes, kept the Republicans in power, but just barely.
Then, in an unprecedented political reversal engineered by Democratic leaders this spring, Sen. James M. Jeffords, Vermont Republican, left the Republican Party, became an independent and voted to put the Democrats back in charge with a 51-49 majority.
This means that the Republicans, if they can hold all their present seats, could win back the Senate next November by defeating just one Democratic incumbent. “It doesn’t get any closer than this,” said a Senate Republican leadership official.
In all, 34 Senate seats 20 of them held by Republicans and 14 by Democrats are up next year in a wartime, political environment that strategists in both parties say favors incumbents.
The September 11 terrorist attacks, the war on terrorism, homeland security and the shape of the economy will be among the major factors affecting the outcome of the elections.
“Midterms tend to be referenda on the sitting president, and Senate candidacies certainly could be affected by how George W. Bush is performing in office,” Mr. Rothenberg said. Mr. Bush’s latest job-approval score is 89 percent, according to an ABC-Washington Post poll.
Republicans are focusing their major offensive against vulnerable Democrat incumbents in South Dakota, Missouri and Minnesota. Democrats say they think they can pick up a seat or two in Arkansas and New Hampshire.
Perhaps the best shot for the party is in Republican-leaning South Dakota, where the White House has recruited Rep. John Thune to take on Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson. Republican polls show Mr. Thune ahead. Mr. Johnson, a freshman, narrowly won last time with 51 percent of the vote.
Democrats are hoping to pull an upset in Arkansas, where Republican Sen. Tim Hutchinson faces a strong challenger in state Attorney General Mark Pryor. But Mr. Hutchinson’s polls have improved lately, and he currently leads Mr. Pryor by eight points in Republican surveys. Other polls show the race closer.
Democratic Sens. Jean Carnahan of Missouri and Paul D. Wellstone of Minnesota are also on the Republicans’ most vulnerable list.
Mrs. Carnahan, appointed to her seat after the death of her husband, has still not formally announced her intentions to run for the remaining four years of her term, but she already has built up a campaign war chest of $1.7 million. She will be challenged by former Rep. Jim Talent, the Republican Party’s former gubernatorial nominee last year, who is running dead even against her in some polls.
Mr. Wellstone, considered one of the Senate’s most liberal members, barely won his second term by 50 percent. The White House recruited St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, the expected Republican nominee, to run against him, with promises of heavy campaign financing. Mr. Coleman is known as an appealing, charismatic campaigner who appeals to voters across party lines. Recent polls show the race is tight.
But Democrats see the chance of a pickup in New Hampshire, where Republican Sen. Robert C. Smith, seeking a third term, faces a rough primary battle against Rep. John E. Sununu, who is running ahead in the latest polls. The winner will face three-term Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, who has been slipping in the polls in the wake of state financing battles and is running even with Mr. Smith and behind Mr. Sununu.
Thus far, there are only three open Senate seats, all Republican. Sens. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, Phil Gramm of Texas and Jesse Helms of North Carolina have announced their retirement. All three seats are expected to remain in Republican hands.
South Carolina Rep. Lindsey Graham, who rose to fame as the articulate House impeachment manager in President Clinton’s Senate trial, is expected to easily win the Republican nomination, while Democrats have been having difficulty finding a strong candidate to run against him.
Polls show that former Transportation and Labor Secretary Elizabeth Dole, who briefly ran for president last year, is currently the clear favorite to win her party’s nod and Mr. Thurmond’s seat.

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