Va., Del. races could be pivotal in Senate balance

Roth, Robb facing strong challengers in re-election bids

January 03, 2000|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Virginia Democrat Charles S. Robb is joking these days that he's grateful to Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The first lady's entry into the New York race means his struggle for re-election to a third, six-year term against popular former Gov. George F. Allen won't be the most closely watched Senate contest in the country this year.

"We had the No. 1 in 1994," when Robb barely survived a bout with the charismatic Oliver L. North, of Iran-contra fame, recalled Robb aide Tom Lehner. "He's glad to let her have it this time."

Delaware Republican William V. Roth Jr. may also be in the first lady's debt. Perhaps the glare from her confrontation with New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani will eclipse the challenge being launched against him by Thomas R. Carper, the chief executive of his state, who -- like Allen -- is ahead in the polls.

Sparks from the Delmarva Senate contests are sure to be no match for the fireworks coming from the Empire State. Yet the mid-Atlantic is home to the two senators of 29 seeking re-election this year who are believed to be most vulnerable. Both are facing the fight of their political lives.

"Those border state races are going to be great to watch -- probably very local and very personal," said Brad Coker of Mason-Dixon Polling and Research, who has been quizzing likely voters in both contests.

It does not appear likely that the Democrats will be able this year to seize control of the Senate from the Republicans, who have a 55-45 majority. Nearly every close contest in the nation -- including Clinton's -- would have to break in the Democrats' favor.

But the Democrats are projected by many analysts, including Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report, to pick up one to three seats. If their odds improve, national attention on the Delaware and Virginia contests will intensify, with both parties pouring in as much money as they can spare.

Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, the New Jersey Democrat who heads the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, has proclaimed defense of Robb's seat to be his "top priority."

Robb weakened

Little wonder. Robb's prospects appear so bleak even fellow Democrats dubbed him "Dead Man Running."

It's hard to recognize in that characterization the handsome former Marine who married President Lyndon B. Johnson's daughter Lynda Bird, claimed the Virginia governor's mansion from a long string of Republicans and helped found a movement of centrist Southern Democrats. But at 60, Robb seems to be in a career slump.

During his first Senate term, Robb's image was badly tarnished by personal and political scandals that squelched all talk of a White House bid. He squeaked by North with 46 percent of the vote in a three-way race, but failed to embark on the ambitious career rehabilitation some had expected.

Instead, Robb's Senate performance in recent years has continued to be mostly quiet, conducted behind the scenes and producing little that he can easily point to as a personal achievement.

"He's a work horse, not a show horse," Lehner said.

Tide of Republicanism

Meanwhile, Allen, a boyish-looking 47, concluded a popular term as governor in 1998 and is riding the tide of a Republican resurgence in the Old Dominion that has left Robb the lone Democrat holding statewide office. In last year's elections, the GOP won control of the General Assembly for the first time in Virginia history.

Much like Texas Gov. George W. Bush, Allen presided over his state at a time of national prosperity and is associated by Virginians with the good times. He has also been particularly active in helping to coax so many technology firms into the state that the "Silicon Dominion" is beginning to rival its California counterpart.

Allen can also be counted on to run an aggressive, well-financed race, hammering at Robb's votes in favor of tax increases proposed by President Clinton and the Democrat's opposition to tax cuts proposed by Republicans.

Early polls put Allen as much as 10 percentage points ahead of Robb, but a survey conducted last month for the Richmond Post-Dispatch showed the two candidates to be running about even, with 13 percent undecided.

"It's going to be a very tough, very competitive race," said Jay Timmons, a spokesman for the Allen campaign.

While the Senate candidates in Virginia are going at each other like brawlers, Coker predicted the Delaware contest would be more like a boxing match -- full of gentlemanly jabs and thrusts more suitable to a state so small voters often know the candidates personally.

Based on record alone, Roth should be in a much stronger postion than Robb.

When the Republicans took control of Congress in 1995, the 30-year Senate veteran became chairman of the Senate Finance Committee -- one of the most powerful positions on Capitol Hill. By many accounts, he has used it well to promote the issues that have been his personal causes as well as interests of his state.

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