- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 3, 2002

This has been a bad week for Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. The Democrats are losing their battle to control the Senate. Scandal-tarred Bob Torricelli, plummeting in the polls against a little-known Republican, has quit his race. And several other Democratic incumbents are also dangerously close to defeat.
Not long ago, Mr. Daschle was in New Jersey with his arm around the trouble-plagued Mr. Torricelli, hoping and praying that Democratic voters would forgive the two-term senator for his ethical transgressions.
But even diehard New Jersey Democrats were angered by disclosures that Mr. Torricelli took expensive gifts and cash from a now-imprisoned, favor-seeking former friend. Polls last weekend revealed that Doug Forrester, a former mayor and businessman, was running some 13 points ahead and worried Democratic leaders prevailed on Mr. Torricelli to drop out, telling him he alone would be responsible for turning over the Senate to the Republicans. They argued a new candidate would give Democrats an outside chance to hold on to the seat.
But Republicans are not going to let the Democrats off the hook that easily. The withdrawal issue is now in the courts. New Jersey election laws state that a candidate's name cannot be removed from the ballot less than 51 days from the election. Absentee ballots have gone out. With a mere month left to go, it is too late to expunge Mr. Torricelli's name from the contest, say Republican attorneys.
"If there were to be exceptions to the law, it is highly unlikely that fear of losing an election would be one of them," said Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Election analyst Marshall Wittmann says the only name that is more unpopular than Mr. Torricelli in New Jersey is Osama bin Laden, so Republicans are eager to see that the senator remains on the ballot, guaranteeing them a victory.
The gloomy outlook for the Democratic Party is not confined to New Jersey. It is also in trouble in a number of Senate races nationwide.
In Minnesota, former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman has moved ahead of Sen. Paul Wellstone, a 1960s-style, big-spending, liberal Democrat who is viscerally opposed taking military action to disarm Saddam Hussein's deadly arsenal of biological and chemical weapons.
Mr. Coleman delivered a blistering campaign address on Iraq last week, defining the upcoming Senate vote on President Bush's war plans as the pivotal national security issue in the election. If Mr. Wellstone votes against the war resolution as he is expected to do it could be the end of his Senate career.
Two other endangered Democratic incumbents Jean Carnahan of Missouri and Tim Johnson of South Dakota are in dead heats in their races. Both have said they support Mr. Bush's policies on Iraq, and both have voted for his tax cuts. Still, they are opposed by popular Republican challengers.
In Missouri, former Rep. Jim Talent is running on eight years of political experience in the House. Mrs. Carnahan, appointed to her seat, is making her first bid for public office. In South Dakota, Republican Rep. John Thune is running in a Republican-leaning state that Mr. Bush carried easily in 2000.
Even in Iowa, venerable Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin appears to be running into trouble. Polls show his race against Republican Rep. Greg Ganske tightening up a little. Few, however, think Mr. Harkin will lose, but the race bears watching.
To be sure, some Republicans are running into trouble, including Sen. Tim Hutchinson, who is facing strong opposition from state Attorney General Mark Pryor. Races in Colorado and Texas have grown tighter, but these are GOP-leaning states and polls show the Republicans leading in both.
With a scant four weeks left in this election season, the bottom line is that the Republicans have far more opportunities to knock off vulnerable Democratic incumbents.
This is what makes the Democrats' mess in New Jersey so critical to the outcome of who wins the Senate. They cannot afford to lose one seat in an election where, with the Senate evenly split, one race can, and likely will, determine the outcome.
The Democrats' biggest wild card in all of this is the economy. The White House is increasingly nervous about the impact of a sinking stock market that is wiping out trillions of dollars in retirement assets.
Two-thirds of all likely voters own stocks and will be getting their third-quarter financial statements in the mail next week. These reports will show their pension assets have been flattened. Polls show that few voters blame the market's decline on Mr. Bush or either party in Congress. Half of them blame the terrorist attacks, a possible war in Iraq or the usual fluctuations of the marketplace.
But if the stock market's decline continues throughout October and the economy softens further as a result, the voters' mood could change and it would not be a pretty sight. And in that kind of scenario, all political bets are off.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent for The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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