- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 28, 2002

Democrats fear that they may lose control of the Senate as polls show that at least four of their incumbents are in danger of defeat.

In recent weeks, former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman has for the first time moved ahead of liberal Sen. Paul Wellstone, Minnesota Democrat, by six points, according to an MSNBC poll by John Zogby. And Republican businessman Doug Forrester was running four points ahead of Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, New Jersey Democrat. Mr. Torricelli has been "severely admonished" by the Senate for taking money and gifts from a one-time lobbyist friend who sought favors from him.

Two other Democrats, Sens. Jean Carnahan of Missouri and Tim Johnson of South Dakota, are in dead heats in races that have Democratic campaign officials biting their fingernails and Republican strategists exuding new confidence of taking over the Senate. The Democrats control the chamber by one seat. They hold 50 seats, with the Republicans holding 49 seats and one seat being held by a Democrat-leaning independent. A Republican takeover of the Senate would give President Bush's agenda and 49 long-stalled judicial nominees a new lease on life in 2003.

"I think everybody is nervous. We only hold the Senate by one vote," said Tovah Ravitz-Meehan, spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

"The Democrats are nervous with good reason," Mr. Zogby said. "Under normal circumstances, losing one seat is not devastating, but this year losing one net seat is of seismic proportions."

Mr. Torricelli's sharp decline in the polls was seen as the most pivotal development in the fight for control of the Senate. He was considered a shoo-in for re-election to a second term he had a 14-point lead over Mr. Forrester before last month's sharp rebuke by the Senate ethics committee.

"Torricelli looks like toast," Mr. Zogby said.

"New Jersey is the key. This is an unexpected 'gimme' for the Republicans. If the GOP can win there, it is likely that Republicans will regain the Senate," said political analyst Marshall Wittmann of the Hudson Institute.

On the other side of the Senate equation, Mrs. Ravitz-Meehan points to three races where the Democrats believe they stand a good chance of picking up Republican seats to offset any losses.

They include Republican Sen. Tim Hutchinson, who is running behind Democratic Attorney General Mark Pryor in Arkansas; Republican Sen. Wayne Allard of Colorado, who is in a rematch with former U.S. Attorney Tom Strickland; and Republican Attorney General John Cornyn of Texas, who faces former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, a Democrat.

But of these three races, polls show only Mr. Hutchinson is in any trouble. Both Colorado and Texas are Republican-leaning states, and Mr. Allard and Mr. Cornyn have been leading their Democratic rivals throughout the summer, though both contests have grown tighter.

The result is that the Republicans appear to have more opportunities to knock off Democratic incumbents, and that has made Democratic officials more defensive as they head into the final five weeks of the midterm election campaigns.

"We knew we'd be in a fight. I think we will pull it out. It will be tight, but we will pull it out," said Maria Cardona, the Democratic National Committee's chief spokeswoman.

"All of these races are critical for us. We've put in and will continue to put in an unprecedented amount of money into these states. The poll that's going to matter is the one taken on November 5th," she said.

New Jersey and Minnesota "are very close and will go down to the wire," Miss Cardona said.

"The closeness of these races does not surprise us, because the electorate is so closely divided," she said.

Republican Senate officials believe that even if they were to lose in Arkansas, they have a good chance of picking up at least two of the four most vulnerable Democratic seats they have targeted.

The latest polls showing Mr. Torricelli and Mr. Wellstone running behind their rivals have only boosted Republican confidence, so much so that discussions have already taken place in Senate Republican circles about their 2003 legislative agenda, according to Republican officials.

"We're increasingly confident about it. We've got a tail wind behind us. It looks better and better every day," a senior Senate Republican leadership official said.

A Republican takeover of the Senate would dramatically change the legislative dynamics in Congress, giving Mr. Bush new opportunities to enact the rest of his economic agenda as he enters the two-year presidential-election cycle that begins in 2003.

The administration has seen several of its priorities blocked by Democrats in the Senate, including legislation to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, providing terrorism insurance and making permanent its 10-year tax cuts, including repeal of the death tax.

Senate Democrats also have slammed on the brakes on most of Mr. Bush's judicial nominations, refusing in some cases to send them to the floor for a vote.

All this would change in a Republican-run Senate, Republican officials say. Committee chairmanships would be in Republican Party hands. Mr. Bush's legislative proposals and nominations would no longer be held up by lengthy hearings or investigations or killed in committee, they say.

But even under Republican control, Senate rules would still give the Democrats wide latitude to block Mr. Bush's remaining agenda. It takes 60 votes to end unlimited debate on a bill, a threshold that is much harder to achieve than a simple 51-vote majority, even if Republicans gain two or three seats.

"The minority party can easily obstruct the designs of the majority. Sixty votes is the margin for everything now," Mr. Wittmann said.


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