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CAMPAIGN 2000

Democrats Do the Math and See Senate in Reach

Campaign: With a surprisingly large number of seats competitive, minority party hopes for gains.

September 26, 2000|JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Sen. William V. Roth Jr. would seem politically unbeatable: He is chairman of a powerful Senate committee, is known to just about everyone in his tiny home state of Delaware and has sky-high approval ratings among voters.

But the five-term Republican is in a dogfight as he seeks reelection, challenged by another popular Delaware politician, Democratic Gov. Thomas R. Carper.

That places Roth on the front lines of an increasingly competitive battle for control of the Senate--a battleground that for most of this election year has been largely eclipsed by the presidential race and the bruising fight for control of the House. But as election day nears, a surprisingly large number of Senate seats are competitive, and Democrats believe that their chances of capturing the majority--or at least whittling the GOP's 54-46 advantage--are brighter than they were a year ago.

The outcome hinges on a lively and diverse array of contests around the country--from First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's high-profile campaign in New York to less well-known but equally intense face-offs in Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri and Montana.

The races are shaped to some degree by issues peculiar to each state--the 79-year-old Roth may see his age work against him, for example. But there are also powerful political crosscurrents buffeting every competitive contest.

Working for the Republican majority is the strong economy that makes it harder to beat incumbents. "Throw the bums out" is hardly an effective rallying cry when so many voters view the economy as on the right track.

But the prevailing policy agenda is working for the Democrats. The issues dominating campaign debates are ones the public tends to associate with Democrats--health care, education and Social Security among them.

Several Must-Beat GOP Targets Are Seen

In this environment, one dynamic is clear: If Democrats have any chance of narrowing or erasing the GOP Senate majority, vulnerable GOP incumbents such as Roth are must-beat targets.

Most senators seeking reelection--including California Democrat Dianne Feinstein--are expected to score easy victories. But there are about 14 races--five seats now held by Democrats, nine by Republicans--in which the result is in doubt, according to the latest analysis by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

Fueling Democratic optimism are key strategic and tactical shifts that Republican candidates have made in many of these tight races.

Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.), who touted big tax cuts and social issues of interest to religious conservatives while flirting with a presidential run, has tacked more to the center as he seeks reelection. His recent ads spotlight his support for preserving Social Security revenue from other government uses and for GOP bills that would provide drug benefits for Medicare beneficiaries and new rights for managed health care patients.

The latest ad for GOP Sen. Conrad R. Burns of Montana features his daughter, a doctor, touting her father's record on health care.

"Most of our Republican incumbents are talking about prescription drugs and Social Security," said Stuart Roy, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Conversely, hardly any Senate Republicans are campaigning on GOP presidential nominee George W. Bush's proposed $1.3-trillion tax cut. Instead, many are promoting the targeted tax cuts that President Clinton has thwarted, such as reducing the taxes for married couples and eliminating the estate tax.

Some Republicans rarely mention party affiliation on their billboards, campaign ads and Web sites. Roth's campaign materials, for example, describe him as "Independent. Respected. A leader for Delaware."

No one is moving more deliberately to distance himself from the GOP than Sen. Lincoln Chafee, a moderate Republican from Rhode Island seeking election to a full term after being appointed to succeed his late father, Sen. John H. Chafee. And the party itself has abetted Chafee's efforts--the National Republican Senatorial Committee has run television ads that boast of his votes for Democratic-backed bills on managed health care and prescription drug benefits.

"He voted against his own party for a real patients' bill of rights and a prescription drug benefit that gives seniors the drugs they need at a price they can afford," the ad said.

Negative Factors Dog Some Democrats

But even as Democrats have benefited from the issues agenda, their prospects in some states have suffered because of a lack of high-profile candidates or because of divisive primaries. Both these factors have come into play in Minnesota, putting in jeopardy the party's chances of unseating Sen. Rod Grams, a Republican first elected six years ago.

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