- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 8, 2002

The chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee is much more optimistic that the Republican Party will regain control of the Senate this year — so much so that he now says he can afford to "take risks" in some longshot races.

Buoyed by new polls that show two Democratic incumbents trailing their Republican challengers, Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee exudes new optimism about his partys chances in the Senate races.

"Im optimistic. I believe well have the majority," Mr. Frist said in a briefing this week to reporters.

Mr. Frist said the Republican Partys prospects in the upcoming Senate elections were changed dramatically by the latest polls in two pivotal battleground states that showed the GOPs candidates leading and with stronger momentum.

In Missouri, Democratic Sen. Jean Carnahans support has plunged seven points over the past several weeks against the Republican Partys nominee, former Rep. Jim Talent, who now has the edge in the race, according to a St. Louis Post-Dispatch poll.

The race was considered to be a tossup, but Republicans now see it as one of their best chances at defeating a vulnerable Democratic incumbent.

"I feel better about this race," Mr. Frist said.

The Democrats situation is even worse in New Jersey, a heavily Democratic state where Sen. Robert G. Torricelli has nose-dived in the polls against Republican Doug Forrester, a little-known businessman and former mayor.

The senators precipitous plunge in the polls began soon after the Senate Ethics Committee "severely admonished" Mr. Torricelli for taking expensive gifts from a former contributor who sought favors from him.

Last week the NRSC began running what Republican strategists said would be a heavy buy of TV ads against Mr. Torricelli that accuse him of "dishonest behavior," making "thousands in trading stocks with inside tips" and breaking his promise to keep "his assets in a blind trust."

"Bob Torricelli thinks New Jersey will tolerate lies and corruption. Call Bob Torricelli, tell him we wont," the TV ad says. Mr. Frist says "the race is going to turn on the question of integrity."

Independent surveys and Mr. Forresters own polls show him leading by 12 to 13 points. Mr. Torricellis latest poll shows the two men tied at 40 percent each, a dramatic change since January when a Quinnipiac University poll found the senator leading his challenger, 50 percent to 26 percent.

"This is the reason why Im cautiously optimistic that we are going to take the majority," Mr. Frist said of the dramatic shift in the Missouri and New Jersey races.

The Senate is currently split with 50 Democrats, 49 Republicans and one independent, making this years midterm elections one of the most closely contested in decades.

Democrats are also struggling in South Dakota, where Sen. Tim Johnson is in a dead heat against Republican Rep. John Thune and in Minnesota, where Sen. Paul Wellstone is running two to three points ahead of former Republican Mayor Norm Coleman.The Democrats in these and other races have been pouring a lot of money into campaign ads during the summer to support their candidates, but Mr. Frist said "their numbers barely moved." The NRSC for the most part has held back on its ad spending until the Labor Day weekend when Republican strategists believe that voters began paying more attention to the campaigns.In a slide show briefing on the races, Mr. Frist said that because there were more vulnerable Democratic incumbents than there were for the Republicans, it would give the NRSC more maneuvering room to divert more money to second-tier races."It gives me a little more room to take a little more risk," the senator said.

As an example of this risk strategy, Mr. Frist pointed to the Louisiana race where the NRSC has decided to back state Elections Commissioner Suzanne Haik Terrell, one of the three Republican candidates in the states unusual multicandidate election system in order to force a runoff against Democratic Sen. Mary L. Landrieu in December.

Mr. Frist said that "14 days ago Louisiana was not on the map. It wasnt in my calculations." But polls showing Mrs. Landrieu drawing only 46 percent of the vote convinced the NRSC that she may be vulnerable in a runoff election between the two top vote getters, if no one gets more than 50 percent of the vote in November.

"If we get to a runoff after the general election, a state that is much more conservative than Landrieus voting record is winnable," Mr. Frist said. "The December runoff could determine control of the Senate."

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