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For GOP, Election Anxiety Mounts

President Bush is introduced by Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) at a campaign event in Charlotte. Dole is heading the GOP congressional recruiting effort.
President Bush is introduced by Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) at a campaign event in Charlotte. Dole is heading the GOP congressional recruiting effort. (By Charles Dharapak -- Associated Press)

Another Republican, pollster Tony Fabrizio, said a recruiting chill was inevitable. Candidates "aren't stupid," he said. "They see the political landscape. You are asking them to make a huge personal sacrifice. It's a lot easier to make that sacrifice if you think there's a rainbow at the end."

Fabrizio accepts the general consensus among political prognosticators that Republicans are likely to keep their Senate and House majorities, in part because there are relatively few open seats, and Democrats must defend seats in many places that have been trending Republican. But he and others say the hope from earlier this year of fortifying these majorities is now considerably more remote.

The GOP holds 55 Senate seats, but unless the political climate brightens considerably in the next few months, some strategists and analysts believe the next Senate may resemble the one after the 2002 election, when Republicans held the narrowest of majorities.

In part this is because Democrats have seemingly found their stride as Republicans are stumbling in the recruiting race. Since Sept. 1, Democrats have lured their preferred candidate, Missouri state Auditor Claire McCaskill, to take on freshman Sen. James M. Talent (R), and have done the same in Arizona, where former Democratic Party chairman Jim Pederson, a wealthy developer, is poised to challenge two-term Sen. Jon Kyl.

Republicans will also struggle to hold on to Pennsylvania, where recent polls show state treasurer Bob Casey Jr. with a substantial lead over two-term Sen. Rick Santorum. In Rhode Island, liberal Republican Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee is being challenged by Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey in the party primary, prompting the NRSC to run TV ads attacking Laffey. Democrats hope the survivor will be too bloodied to win the general election in a state that Bush lost by 20 percentage points.

Dole can count some successes. She was hoping Mike McGavick, the former chairman of Safeco Corp., would take a fight to Sen. Maria Cantwell (D) in Washington, and he is. In Minnesota, she scored her first choice, Rep. Mark Kennedy (R), to run for retiring Democrat Mark Dayton's seat, and cleared the GOP field for him.

But in Michigan, the White House and the NRSC moved quickly to persuade Rep. Candice S. Miller (R) to take on Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D). After Miller refused the entreaties, attention turned to David A. Brandon, Domino's Pizza Inc. chief executive, as the Republican candidate of choice. Brandon, too, told Republican recruiters no. After Vermont independent Sen. James M. Jeffords's retirement announcement earlier this year, Gov. Jim Douglas (R) came under considerable pressure to run for the Senate but resisted. Until 10 months ago, then-Gov. Mike Johanns of Republican-leaning Nebraska was the GOP's hands-down choice to challenge incumbent Democrat Sen. Ben Nelson, but then Bush appointed him secretary of agriculture.

It is the NRSC's fundraising that some GOP operatives find underwhelming. At the end of August, the NRSC had raised $25 million, just a little less than its counterpart, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. But the DSCC has twice as much cash on hand, $16.7 million to the NRSC's $8.2 million.

Brian Nick, NRSC spokesman, said this fall's gloomy forecasts will give way to brighter skies next year. "We feel very, very strongly that we're going to be able to protect the majority where it is right now," with no erosion, he said. After all, Nick noted, "the election is over a year away."

On the House side, where Republicans hold 231 of the 435 seats, the effect of the political climate on recruiting is less clear. Democrats and Republicans can point to successes in individual races, but no clear national pattern has emerged, analysts say.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) says 50 or more seats are in play and notes that his organization has recruited 40 candidates in competitive districts. His GOP counterpart, Rep. Tom Reynolds (N.Y.), says 27 to 37 seats could be close fights. "We will be a majority" after the 2006 elections, vowed the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

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