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Seesaw Races Grip the Senate

Of 34 seats on ballots this fall, the GOP is defending 20; the Democrats, 14. A handful may decide control of the chamber.

October 21, 2002|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Democrats and Republicans are racing toward another photo finish in the struggle for control of the U.S. Senate, as large national themes and distinctive local concerns have combined to produce virtual dead-heat races from New Hampshire to Colorado.

As the Nov. 5 elections near, the latest trends in the most closely watched contests have raised Democrats' hopes of maintaining their tenuous one-seat Senate majority. But so many races are so evenly divided, and the underlying national environment remains so unsettled, that neither side can predict the outcome with any confidence.

In the seven races considered the most competitive, five remain too close to call: Republican-held seats in Colorado and New Hampshire, and Democrat-held seats in Missouri, Minnesota and South Dakota. Democrats are slightly favored to hold on to a seat in New Jersey and capture a GOP seat in Arkansas.

Republicans need a net gain of only one seat to win control of the Senate.

With so many races so tight, small changes in the national environment could loom large. Over the last six weeks, Republicans benefited from an increased focus on national security issues generated by the debate over a possible war with Iraq. But that advantage may have peaked too soon.

Even some GOP strategists worry that the campaign focus over the final two weeks may revert toward the economy -- and trigger the traditional voter inclination to punish the party holding the White House for hard times. "It would be better if the election was this Tuesday," one top GOP strategist said.

Yet if the economy stands as the major threat to the GOP, offsetting factors are fueling Republican hopes of avoiding the Senate losses typical for the president's party in midterm elections.

Geography is benefiting the GOP: Five of the seven races considered the most competitive are in states President Bush carried in 2000. Almost all of them are culturally conservative states where the national security arguments Republicans are stressing traditionally carry the most weight. And, despite the gloom about the economy, Democrats have failed to establish a consistent advantage in polls as the party better able to revive prosperity -- partly because so few Democratic candidates have offered a clear agenda for recovery.

"The economy is not a slam-dunk for Democrats," Republican pollster Whit Ayres said.

In all, voters are selecting senators in 34 states this fall; Republicans are defending 20 seats, Democrats 14. The chamber is now divided among 50 Democrats, 49 Republicans and one independent.

Beyond the seven fiercely competitive races, Georgia also is being watched. Democrats remain confident about first-term Sen. Max Cleland, but Republicans believe Rep. Saxby Chambliss is gaining.

There are half a dozen more races where both sides are still within reach, but the party holding the seat has a clear advantage. These are open seats now held by retiring Republican incumbents in North and South Carolina, Texas and Tennessee, and contests featuring Democratic incumbents Tom Harkin in Iowa and Mary Landrieu in Louisiana.

The remaining seats seem safe for the party holding them.

The national backdrop for these contests is ambiguous and contradictory. On the one hand, Bush continues to enjoy stratospheric approval ratings; historically, when the president is so popular, his party benefits in midterm elections.

On the other hand, the public is displaying a level of anxiety about the economy and the country's direction that usually signals trouble in congressional races for the party holding the White House.

In the latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup Organization Inc. survey, nearly three-fourths of Americans described the economy as poor or only fair. That was the bleakest assessment since October 1994 -- just before the Democrats suffered a landslide repudiation that swept control of the House and the Senate to the GOP.

No one on either side is predicting such a massive shift. The safest prediction is that the majority in the Senate will remain tenuous after November, with the majority party still holding only a narrow advantage.

For the most part, candidates from both parties have been cautious in developing their message and agenda.

Republicans have been aggressive on two fronts: defending Bush's 2001 tax cut and challenging Democrats on issues revolving around national security. GOP nominees as diverse as Jim Talent in Missouri, Norm Coleman in Minnesota, Doug Forrester in New Jersey, John Cornyn in Texas, John R. Thune in South Dakota and Chambliss in Georgia are all trying to paint their Democratic opponents as soft on defense.

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