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Centrist Democrat a Test of GOP Hold

Sen. Ben Nelson, left, is one of 18 Democrats whose seats are on the line next year. Republicans are defending 15.
Sen. Ben Nelson, left, is one of 18 Democrats whose seats are on the line next year. Republicans are defending 15. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

Republicans hold 55 of the Senate's 100 seats, and a few gains in next year's elections would make it extremely difficult for Democratic leaders to sustain filibusters, an action that requires 41 votes.

As in recent elections, Democrats anxiously ponder the Senate's political math, which does not favor them. The more Senate races tend to reflect presidential outcomes, the stronger it makes the GOP in the Senate. For example, Bush won 31 states last year. If Republicans hold all the Senate seats from those states, they will command the chamber 62 to 38, even if they lose their eight members from states that Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry won last November.

Last fall, Republicans won all five southern seats from which Democrats retired, and Democrats are desperate to reelect their incumbents in tough states next year. Topping the GOP's target list are Nelson and Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, where Bush took 63 percent of the vote last fall, only slightly lower than his 66 percent majority in Nebraska.

However, in both states the GOP faces recruiting problems. The only prominent Nebraska Republican to announce thus far is former attorney general Don Stenberg, a less-than-stellar campaigner who narrowly lost to Nelson in 2000. To the bitter disappointment of Senate recruiters, Rep. Tom Osborne (R) -- the former Nebraska Cornhuskers football coach still revered here -- is running for governor, even though the incumbent, Dave Heineman, who was sworn in as chief executive in January, is a fellow Republican.

Nelson would probably have been the underdog if Osborne or popular former governor Mike Johanns (R) had challenged him, Hibbing said, but now GOP recruiters "are at the second tier."

Moreover, GOP activists say, Bush has not helped their effort. In December, he appointed Johanns, then the governor, to be secretary of agriculture, depriving the party of its most promising Senate challenger. Then, on Feb. 4, Bush traveled to Omaha with Nelson and praised the senator's openness to White House proposals to restructure Social Security. He called Nelson "a man with whom I can work, a person who is willing to put partisanship aside to focus on what's right for America."

In North Dakota, Republicans have only one potential candidate who might oust Conrad, a 19-year Senate veteran who has won reelection easily, according to analysts there and in Washington. Gov. John Hoeven (R) has the skills and popularity to press Conrad hard, they say, but it is unclear whether he will run for the Senate in the middle of his second term.

Republicans also have recruitment concerns in Florida, which Bush carried 52 to 47 percent over Kerry. Many Republicans feel their best candidates are running for the open governor's seat rather than challenging Sen. Bill Nelson (D). Among those weighing a Senate bid is Rep. Katherine Harris, who gained national attention while overseeing the chaotic state ballot recount that helped Bush win over Al Gore in 2000. Harris is so popular among grateful GOP die-hards that she might win the Senate GOP primary, analysts say. But her general election prospects are less certain. "She's still really polarizing," said Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

Democrats, who are defending 18 seats to the GOP's 15, see their best hopes for Senate gains in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. Bush lost those states in 2000 and last year. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), an outspoken conservative, expects a strong challenge from state Treasurer Robert P. Casey Jr. (D).

In Rhode Island, Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee (R) is more liberal than several Democratic senators, but that is not good enough, Democratic strategists say.

Democrats jockeying to challenge Chafee include Secretary of State Matthew A. Brown and former state attorney general Sheldon Whitehouse.

Among the four open races in next year's Senate elections, Republicans say they are confident of keeping the Tennessee seat being vacated by Majority Leader Bill Frist. Maryland, where Paul S. Sarbanes (D) is retiring, leans strongly Democratic, but the GOP hopes Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele will make a strong run. Democrats are favored in Vermont, where independent Sen. James M. Jeffords is stepping down. Republicans will make a strong push to replace Sen. Mark Dayton (D) in Minnesota. Rep. Mark Kennedy has the GOP field largely to himself, while several Democrats are weighing campaigns.

In Washington state, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D) has shaky approval ratings, but the strongest potential GOP challenger -- Dino Rossi -- is fixated on claiming the disputed 2004 governor's race, insiders say.

Republicans say they have outside chances of ousting Democratic Sens. Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.) and Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) if they recruit the right challengers. Likewise, Democrats say they see vulnerability in Republican Sens. Mike DeWine (Ohio), Conrad Burns (Mont.) and James M. Talent (Mo.).

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