Sunday, July 24, 2005

White House political strategist Karl Rove has been crucial in recruiting successful Republican Senate candidates during the last four years and has even bigger plans for 2006.

But all is not going well for Mr. Rove. In at least two pivotal races his campaign hopes, and perhaps the GOP’s 55-seat majority, are in deep danger of being whittled down by two conservative challengers who have balked at White House pressure to abandon their Senate ambitions.

The first is in Republican-heavy Florida where Mr. Rove and Sen. Elizabeth Dole, the National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman, have made freshman Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson their No. 1 target.

Despite a heavily conservative home-state constituency who handed President Bush an easy victory last year, Mr. Nelson has carved out a starkly liberal voting record that has won praise from, making him one of the Democrats’ most vulnerable incumbents. He won his seat by a narrow 51 percent five years ago and Mrs. Dole thinks he’s beatable if the right candidate runs against him.

Florida Rep. Katherine Harris thinks she is that candidate, but Mr. Rove, Mrs. Dole and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush do not agree. They think she remains a lightning rod because of her role as secretary of state in charge of the bitter ballot recount in the 2000 presidential election George W. Bush won by the skin of his teeth. And they have a thick sheaf of polling data showing, while popular among Republicans, Mrs. Harris is still hated by Democrats and many swing voters, who would turn out in droves to defeat her.

In recent weeks, Mrs. Harris has reportedly met privately with Mr. Rove and, separately, with Mrs. Dole to press her case and argue she has been underestimated in statewide races before, only to prove wrong both polls and the Republican establishment. “I know I can win this,” she told party officials.

But the polling data Mr. Rove and others have shown her suggest otherwise. A Quinnipiac University poll last month showed Mr. Nelson leading Mrs. Harris by 12 points (his 50 percent to her 38 percent). She runs especially poorly among independents, a large and growing force in a state of political transplants.

Mr. Rove, Mrs. Dole and Jeb Bush believe someone else will be needed to beat Mr. Nelson — someone who doesn’t reopen the political wounds of the Bush-Gore electoral battle. That candidate, they say, is Florida House Speaker Alan Bense, who is solidly conservative but, unlike Mrs. Harris, has little name recognition statewide.

Mr. Bense has had meetings in Washington, D.C., recently with Mr. Rove and other top Republican officials who say they will give him the funding needed to make him a household name by next year’s elections. The problem, though, is that just about every poll shows Mrs. Harris winning a party primary she has every intention of entering. Moreover, she has put together a cadre of heavyweight campaign advisers, including Ed Rollins, who managed Ronald Reagan’s landslide 1984 campaign.

That sets up a vexing scenario for Mr. Rove’s team, who fear a divisive party primary could help the Democrats hang on to this seat. Harris supporters, though, think Mr. Rove and the party bigwigs should stay out of this election and allow Florida Republicans to decide on their candidate.

The other race that has become problematic for Mr. Rove is in Rhode Island, where Sen. Lincoln Chafee, the party’s liberal maverick, faces a likely challenge from conservative Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey.

Unchallenged, Mr. Chafee wouldn’t have much trouble holding his seat in the absence of strong Democratic opposition. But it’s unlikely liberal, Democratic-leaning Mr. Chafee could survive a primary dominated by the GOP’s conservative rank and file.

Mr. Rove has been pressuring Mr. Laffey not to run, urging him instead to try for lieutenant governor next year, which would put him on sure track for a future governorship race. But Mr. Laffey, articulate and politically ambitious, wants “a bigger challenge,” he tells senior Republican officials. “Definitely a race to watch,” says veteran congressional elections tracker Stuart Rothenberg, who now ranks Mr. Chafee a “tossup.”

Elsewhere, the senatorial lineup being put together by Mr. Rove and Mrs. Dole looks promising, with a good shot at picking up an open Democratic seat in Minnesota, where Rep. Mark Kennedy is the likely Republican nominee and the Democrats face a primary fight. In Washington state, Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell, who won with a 48.7 percent plurality in 2000, looks vulnerable and could be challenged by another Rove recruitment, Safeco Chief Executive Officer Mike McGavick.

But with the GOP’s troubles in Florida and Rhode Island, plus Sen. Rick Santorum’s tough re-election battle in heavily Democratic Pennsylvania, Mr. Rove won’t get any free rides in this election cycle. “Republicans appear likely to maintain control of the Senate. But Democrats have a good chance of netting Senate seats, shrinking the GOP majority for the president’s final two years,” Mr. Rothenberg predicts.

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

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