- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 13, 2002

The marathon race for control of the Senate appears closer than ever, though several Democratic incumbents have slipped in the polls and appear more vulnerable than before.

In a 34-state battle that could determine the fate of President Bush's remaining agenda, polls show that several Republican challengers lead in key states slightly improving the party's chances of retaking the Senate.

The weekly state-by-state polling roundup that is assembled by Hotline, the weekly political newswire, concluded last week that if all of the available "poll numbers were taken at face value, then the makeup of the Senate would now stand at 48 Democrats, 50 Republicans and 1 independent" with the race in Texas too close to call.

The mathematics in this year's Senate showdown could not be closer. Democrats cling to a one-vote majority in the Senate, which they gained after Vermont Sen. James M. Jeffords left the Republican Party in May 2001. The Republicans need a net gain of one seat to put them back in charge.

Among the contests where key Democrats remained highly vulnerable and Republicans appeared to be making gains:

•Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, New Jersey Democrat, who was "severely admonished" by the Senate ethics committee for accepting gifts from a businessman seeking favors, has fallen in the polls against a little-known Republican opponent. Republican polls at the end of July showed Mr. Torricelli trailing businessman and former West Windsor Mayor Doug Forrester by 3 percentage points, within the margin of error. Democrats say their polls show the senator still ahead by a few points, but they say he is weaker as a result of the gifts scandal.

•After two terms in the Senate, liberal Sen. Paul Wellstone, Minnesota Democrat, appears to be struggling against former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman. Polls taken late last month showed Mr. Wellstone, who broke his public pledge to serve only two terms, running 4 percentage points behind Mr. Coleman, who is being heavily backed by the White House.

•Sen. Jean Carnahan, Missouri Democrat, a widow who is seeking elective office for the first time in her own right, is trailing former Rep. James Talent. Critics say Mrs. Carnahan seems "lost in the Senate" and rarely gives interviews. An independent poll conducted this week for KSDK-TV News in St. Louis showed the senator running behind Mr. Talent by 6 percentage points.

•Freshman Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota, widely considered the Senate's most vulnerable Democrat, has been trailing Republican Rep. John Thune for months by 3 to 5 percentage points, and both sides say there has been no change in the race. Mr. Bush carried the Republican-leaning state with 60 percent of the vote. Mr. Johnson barely won his seat in 1996 by 51 percent, while Mr. Thune won his statewide, at-large House seat with 75 percent of the vote.

Independent analysts and strategists in both parties say it is too early to make any projections based on the latest polls in these races. But with three months to go before Election Day, the early indications are that a significant number of Democratic incumbents are in trouble.

"Several Republican senators are also vulnerable, but we cannot afford to lose any of our incumbents and hold the Senate," said a worried Democratic campaign strategist.

Mr. Torricelli's sharp reprimand from the Senate ethics committee and growing demands to make public testimony from the panel's closed-door hearing have especially endangered the party's chances in the fall, strategists say.

"Torricelli is under 50 percent in other polls. He's very vulnerable," said Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the Cook Political Report.

The latest Republican poll showing Mr. Torricelli trailing 40 percent to 37 percent "was taken before the Senate's rebuke, when voters did not know about it," she said. "But if you go back and look at the rest of the polling, his job approval and re-elect numbers have all been weak."

But Democratic officials point to Republican incumbents who also are vulnerable. "You could say the same of Republican incumbents in New Hampshire, Arkansas and Colorado," said Tovah Ravitz-Meehan, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's spokesman.

The polls in New Jersey "indicate a little tightening in that race," she said. "But the only number that matters is the one that happens on Nov. 5."

However, Ginny Wolfe, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said, "The Hotline numbers are very bad news for the Democrats. It shows that in the middle of a very intense campaign when Democrats are trying to demonize Republicans at all levels that voters are not buying their game."

Mr. Wellstone, who has a 100 percent liberal voting-record score from Americans for Democratic Action, "has been spending huge amounts of money on ads, and his numbers either have not changed or have gone down," she said.

Recent Democratic polls show several Republican incumbents also running behind at this point, including Sen. Wayne Allard of Colorado, Sen. Robert C. Smith of New Hampshire and Sen. Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas.

But Mr. Smith, who angered Republicans by briefly leaving the party in 1999 to run for president as an independent, may not win his party's nomination. He has been running behind Rep. John E. Sununu in the party's primary contest, which will be decided Sept. 10, and polls show Mr. Sununu leading the presumptive Democratic nominee, Gov. Jeanne Shaheen.

Mr. Hutchinson ran into political trouble when he divorced his wife of 29 years and married a former staffer, but he easily won his primary with 78 percent of the vote. Democratic polls show him trailing state Attorney General Mark Pryor, while a recent Tarrance Group poll has the senator leading 51 percent to 43 percent.

Mr. Allard is in a bitter rematch with former U.S. Attorney Tom Strickland, who he easily defeated in 1996. Recent polls have this contest in a dead heat in this Republican-leaning state.

The surprise of the election season is the battle in Texas between former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, a Democrat, and Republican state Attorney General John Cornyn. Some polls show the liberal Mr. Kirk leading, while others show Mr. Cornyn comfortably ahead. Still, Mr. Cornyn has a huge cash-on-hand advantage in a heavily Republican state that Mr. Bush won with 60 percent of the vote.

"This fight should remain very close until the end," said elections analyst Charlie Cook.

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