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Bob Menendez faces big hurdles to protect Democrats' majority in U.S. Senate

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Schumer spoke first to the gathered press and talked about how texting for five seconds could cause a driver to take his eyes off the road for the length of a football field. Menendez spoke next, thanking Schumer for his "leadership," and then repeated, almost verbatim, that five seconds could cause a driver to take his eyes off the road for the length of a football field.

The senators took questions on health care and spending freezes, and when Menendez spoke, Schumer looked on, nodding when he approved of the answer. As they walked off the stage, Schumer patted Menendez on the back and said, "Good job."

Schumer has shepherded an entire flock of new senators, Menendez among them, and spun his success into a potential candidacy for majority leader. Since succeeding Schumer at the DSCC, Menendez's biggest problem has been that there is nowhere to go but down. And Menendez acknowledged that Schumer is still called in to pinch-hit.

"He's been very helpful to us even though he's running himself," Menendez said. "He has not hesitated to carry out anything I've asked him to do, whether it's [to] talk to a potential candidate, give us insight into New York finance opportunities."

Schumer, in turn, has also helped his successor by lowering expectations. According to Dodd, Schumer recently told the Democratic caucus that Menendez had a much harder sell to make.

"He took over under very difficult circumstances, and I think the entire caucus knows how difficult the circumstances are and believes he's doing an outstanding job," Schumer said in an interview. "What makes the difficult circumstances are recession, the sourness of the public mood and the fact that there is often more enthusiasm for achieving a goal rather than maintaining a goal."

Unpopular populism

The current Capitol Hill populism has embittered the Wall Street donors whom Schumer has long cultivated. And now they're taking it out on Menendez.

Without their enthusiastic support, failure is an option. "It's a challenge that you have to admit is not going to be overcome to the degree that you'd like to see it," said Jon Corzine, the former Goldman Sachs chief executive who preceded Schumer as DSCC chairman, appointed Menendez in 2005 and lost a bid for reelection as N.J. governor in November that he attributed to the angry national mood. Corzine knows intimately what Menendez faces: "An almost inevitable falloff."

Menendez slogs northward for regular pilgrimages to the offices of hedge fund and investment bank executives and tries to convince these targets of Democratic attacks to give money to Democrats.

"I don't know if there is ingratitude, but look, when you are the focus of any given attention, you are always going to be sensitive and sometimes over-sensitive," Menendez said. "And having them understand that there has been balance particularly in the actions -- let's forget about the words for a moment -- in the actions. I remind them there is a difference between what is said and what is done."

To avoid that awkward pitch in the future, some of Menendez's Democratic colleagues think the chairmanship should by pried loose from senators who represent Wall Street's surrounding states.

"I don't think it needs to be a senator from the Northeast," said Tom Udall (N.M.). "I would argue that all of us have the network and know the people."

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