- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Republicans have suffered a spate of setbacks this week in their effort to widen their one-seat Senate majority in the 2004 elections.

Their top contenders in three states where Republicans hope to oust incumbent Democrats decided this week against running for the Senate.

“They are running into the hills,” said Brad Woodhouse, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

In Arkansas, Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee said yesterday he would not run against Sen. Blanche Lincoln. Earlier this week, popular Republican Rep. Jim Gibbons turned away his party’s entreaties to run against Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, and in North Dakota, former college basketball coach Dale Brown, a Republican, announced he would not challenge Sen. Byron L. Dorgan.

“The map is moving in our direction,” Mr. Woodhouse said.

Republicans responded that any movement in Democrats’ direction this week is because Senate races couldn’t get much worse for Democrats.

“Clearly, we will be on offense and Democrats will be on defense this cycle,” said Daniel Allen, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

In next year’s election, Democrats are defending 19 Senate seats, while Republicans are defending 15.

More troubling for Democrats is that seven of their seats are in states that voted by significant margins for President Bush in the 2000 election. Only two Republican seats are in states that voted by 5 percentage points or more against Mr. Bush.

“There is still a lot of reason to be optimistic,” Mr. Allen said. At the very least, he said, Democrats will have to spend money to defend those seats.

More promising for Republicans, Mr. Allen said, are several Democratic seats that appear vulnerable.

For instance, in Georgia and South Carolina, which in recent years have shifted firmly into Republican control, two old-style Democrats have decided not to seek re-election. Democrats and Republicans alike say those seats will be hard for Democrats to defend.

In neighboring North Carolina, Democratic Sen. John Edwards remains undecided about whether he will seek re-election to the Senate as he runs for president. Even if he runs again, he faces a formidable challenge from Rep. Richard M. Burr in the Republican-leaning state.

Also, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, could face a challenge from former Republican Rep. John Thune.

“If Thune runs, that would certainly be considered a competitive race, along with North Carolina,” Mr. Woodhouse said.

Democrats and Republicans also agree that Republicans face losing Senate seats in Illinois and Alaska.

Sen. Peter G. Fitzgerald, Illinois Republican, has decided against running for re-election after one term in the Senate. Republicans failed to recruit former Gov. Jim Edgar to run in his place in a state that Mr. Bush lost by 14 percentage points in the 2000 election.

Republicans also are concerned about Alaska, where Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Republican, is serving out the remainder of her father’s Senate term.

In addition to recruitment troubles in Illinois, Republicans have been unsuccessful in luring their preferred candidates in Florida, where former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Mel Martinez declined to challenge Sen. Bob Graham.

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