All not so ho-hum in races for Senate

May 15, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The conventional wisdom here these days is that the campaign for the Senate is a ho-hum affair. The Democrats are expected to gain some seats but not the five they would need for control if they also win the White House and the vice presidency.

But it should not be forgotten that the expectations for the Republicans were similarly modest in 1980, when they captured the Senate on the coat-tails of Ronald Reagan. Then six years later, another surprise and the Democrats regained control, however briefly.

The point is that the Senate campaign includes many contests likely to be extremely close and thus capable of swinging all one way orthe other if either Vice President Al Gore or Gov. George W. Bush opens a substantial lead in the presidential campaign. At the moment, that possibility seems farfetched, but the election is still six months away.

The stakes are obviously high.

The Republicans clearly have the greatest exposure to risk with19 of their seats at stake compared to 14 held by the Democrats. Moreover, the Republicans include several who surprised everyone by winning in 1994 and may be vulnerable in trying for a second term. This group includes, most notably, Rod Grams of Minnesota, Spencer Abraham of Michigan and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

But whatever advantage the Democrats enjoy against those freshmen is offset to some degree by retirements that put at jeopardy four seats that otherwise might seem safe -- those of Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, Daniel P. Moynihan of New York and Richard Bryan of Nevada.

In the end, the complexion of the Senate may be determined by several hotly contested campaigns, including the following:

The New York contest between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rudy Giuliani is by all odds the marquee campaign of 2000. If Ms. Clinton loses the Moynihan seat, the chances of the Democrats regaining control of the Senate are remote.

The campaign in Virginia between Sen. Charles Robb and Republican George Allen is obviously down to the wire. Mr. Allen completed the single term as governor allowed by the Virginia constitution as an extremely popular leader capable of holding the religious right without alienating large numbers of more moderate Republicans. But Chuck Robb is a resourceful politician who has always been able to cut across the usual demographic lines.

In Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum has been considered extremely vulnerable almost since the day he won the seat in 1994. He appears to be more conservative than the state, and he won a lot of early attention from the television cameras espousing rightist positions. But he amassed a campaign fund of more than $3 million while his Democratic opponent, Rep. Ron Klink of Pittsburgh, emerged from a primary last month in debt.

Missouri voters will be choosing between a Republican incumbent from the far right, Sen. John Ashcroft, and Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan. Polls show the race dead even, and so is their fund-raising. This one is likely to be close enough so that a strong showing by either Mr. Gore or Governor Bush could make the difference.

There are several campaigns that won't take on their final shape until primaries in one party or another. In Florida, for example, the retirement of Sen. Connie Mack has given rise to a Republican primary fight between state education commissioner Tom Gallagher and Rep. Bill McCollum in September. If Gallagher wins, he will be the favorite against the Democratic candidate, state insurance commissioner Bill Nelson. But Mr. McCollum probably would be an underdog.

In New Jersey, the Democratic primary to replace Senator Lautenberg is between former Gov. James Florio and Jon Corzine, a former chairman of Goldman Sachs pouring huge amounts of his own money into the campaign. As a general election candidate, Mr. Florio carries some baggage from the past, including tax increases while he was governor and two losing statewide campaigns. If the Democrats are to hold this seat, Mr. Corzine maybe a better bet.

In short, there are still too many variables to define the campaign for the Senate.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

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