Small gain in Senate seats likely for Democrats

GOP expected to keep control, but more slots to be contested in 2002


WASHINGTON -- This year's Senate elections seem likely to produce modest Democratic gains, but too small to help the party take control from the Republicans, leaders of both parties agree.

Both sides will be watching the outcome closely, because it will probably set the stage for an even more intense fight for control in 2002. Democrats see great opportunities then, when 20 seats held by Republicans will be on the ballot, compared with 13 held by Democrats.

In this year's races, 10 of the 19 Republican seats being contested are at various degrees of risk, compared with five of the 14 Democratic seats. That's enough of an edge in the odds to give the Democrats grounds for optimism. The Republicans currently enjoy a 55-45 majority.

Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat who heads his party's campaign committee, said that "a majority is certainly within range" in 2000. But, he added, "Everything has to break right."

His Republican counterpart, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, called a reduced majority "a reasonable surmise." Gone are the days when Republicans raised the hopes of a filibuster-proof majority of 60 seats, which seemed possible in 1998.

Still, neither party, let alone the individual candidates, thinks of this year as only the first part of a two-tiered election. It is still 33 separate races.

"Right now, you certainly don't see any kind of national tide," said Linda DiVall, a Republican pollster.

Republicans base their hopes for holding their own on four Democratic retirements. They are concentrating on the opportunity that likely offers them the greatest potential satisfaction: defeating Hillary Rodham Clinton in New York.

"That's one that will rival the presidential in magnitude," McConnell said, though he added that he thought Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York would not need as much help from the party as some other candidates.

But neither will Clinton, who can raise money on her own. Democrats count themselves fortunate that they probably will have self-financing candidates in the most expensive states with Senate elections this year: Clinton in New York, Dianne Feinstein in California and, if he wins the primary, Jon Corzine in New Jersey.

The Democrats have four seats at risk because of the retirements of Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, Richard Bryan of Nevada, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York. The Nevada seat seems like a probable Republican gain, with former Rep. John Ensign much better known than his Democratic opponent, Ed Bernstein, a lawyer.

In Nebraska, a strongly Republican state, the Democrats have their best possible candidate, former Gov. Ben Nelson. A Republican primary May 9 will determine his rival.

In New Jersey, both parties think the Democrats will have an edge if Corzine, a wealthy financier but a political unknown, defeats former Gov. Jim Florio in the June 6 primary. Republicans say they think either of their likely nominees, Rep. Bob Franks or state Sen. Bill Gormley, could defeat Florio, who lost his bid for re-election in 1993 because of voter anger over tax increases.

The only Democratic incumbent in obvious peril is Sen. Charles S. Robb of Virginia, who is seeking a third term against former Gov. George F. Allen. In presidential years, Virginia has long been a heavily Republican state, and most polls show Allen ahead, though Robb has made comebacks before.

Republicans have one open seat to defend, that of Connie Mack of Florida. Rep. Bill McCollum has a fat campaign fund but may have to spend much of it to win the Republican nomination against Tom Gallagher, the state education commissioner.

With a Sept. 5 primary, the calendar might favor Bill Nelson, the Democratic insurance commissioner, who is facing less opposition.

The Republican incumbents in the greatest jeopardy include five freshmen: Spencer Abraham of Michigan, John Ashcroft of Missouri, Lincoln D. Chafee of Rhode Island, Rod Grams of Minnesota and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

Abraham and Grams have failed to establish themselves clearly. In Michigan, Rep. Deborah Ann Stabenow is a formidable challenger. In Minnesota, Grams has had two campaign shake-ups, but Democrats will not settle on an opponent until their Sept. 12 primary.

Chafee, appointed last November to succeed his father, John Chafee, has a similar advantage in Rhode Island. Rep. Robert A. Weygand and former Lt. Gov. Richard Licht will contest the Democratic nomination Sept. 12, and the winner will hope that the state's heavy Democratic majority can overcome whatever bitterness and fund-raising problems remain for an eight-week general election campaign.

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