Republicans battle to keep slim edge in Senate

Democrats faring better in some GOP strongholds

Election 2004

October 31, 2004|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DENVER - Elisabeth Kinnard came to Denver's early-bird polling place last week to buck the Republican-leaning trend in Colorado, as did the man before her in line and the woman before him. They all cast votes in favor of Democrat Ken Salazar for the U.S. Senate - a streak that certainly reached four straight votes, considering the candidate was next in line, surrounded by a bubble of television cameras.

"I've had enough of the Republicans," said Kinnard, a 56-year-old registered independent, as she fought through the crowd gathered to watch Salazar duck behind the red curtain and vote. "I feel less safe, less secure now than at any time I can remember."

By voting for a Democrat to fill a seat left open by a Republican, Kinnard and thousands of other like-minded voters in Colorado have thrown into question the control of the Senate, where the Republicans are clinging to a precarious one-vote majority.

Although most polls suggest that Democrats have only a slim chance of seizing control, voters in such conservative strongholds as Kentucky, Alaska and Oklahoma have shown signs of rebelling against the GOP.

Leaders from both parties have fanned out across the country for close races in the election's closing days, trying to impress upon voters the decisive impact that control of the upper chamber can have on such issues as national security, the minimum wage, judicial appointments and the federal budget.

"We lost the reform of class action lawsuits on the floor of the Senate this year by one vote," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee said during a stump speech last week in Colorado, where Republican Pete Coors trails in most polls but is waging a close race against Salazar, the state's attorney general. Frist paused a moment to let the thought linger. "One vote. That's what this campaign is about, and that's why this is a historic moment for the future of our country. One vote can make the difference for our future."

Republicans hold 51 Senate seats, Democrats have 48, and there is one independent, Vermont Sen. James M. Jeffords, who usually votes with the Democrats.

With a 19-seat advantage in the House, Republicans are expected to maintain control of that chamber.

A tip in the one-seat advantage that Republicans enjoy in the Senate could be the difference between success and failure for the next president, Frist said.

"Who is going to be majority leader? Or chairman of the Appropriations Committee? Who would you rather have as chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions? Judd Gregg or Ted Kennedy? Or who is going to lead the Judiciary Committee when it considers judicial nominations? Arlen Specter or Pat Leahy?

"These are the kinds of questions I hope the American people are asking themselves," Frist said. "The direction of the country is at stake."

Thirty-four of the Senate's 100 seats are up for election this year, but polls indicate that most of them - including Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski's - are unlikely to change hands. Polls also suggest that the GOP will almost certainly lose a seat in Illinois, where Democrat Barack Obama holds a huge lead over Republican Alan L. Keyes, and that it will compensate by gaining a seat in Georgia, where Republican Johnny Isakson is leading in a bid to replace retiring Democrat Zell Miller.

But that leaves eight reasonably close races - in Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Colorado and Alaska. Four of those seats are held by Democrats, and polls show that Republicans in two of those races - in North Carolina, for a seat vacated by Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards, and in South Carolina - have slight leads.

Losing either race would all but extinguish the Democrats' slim hopes of gaining the two seats necessary for a majority. And the close race in South Dakota, where Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle is facing a spirited challenge, has inspired the Republicans further.

But Republican troubles in states long considered safe for the GOP have nonetheless thrown the Senate's post-election balance into doubt.

Gaffes and accusations

One example is Kentucky, where Republican Sen. Jim Bunning has bumbled into a close race with challenger Daniel Mongiardo with a succession of public gaffes, such as the time he called his opponent a look-alike for Saddam Hussein's son.

Bunning recently pleaded ignorance in response to questions about a much-publicized incident in which soldiers refused an assignment in Iraq, telling reporters that he does not read newspapers or watch television news.

And Mongiardo's staff tagged Bunning as a cheater for using a TelePrompTer during a candidate debate, which he would only participate in by television feed.

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