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Senate surprise: Democrats pulling ahead in close races

WASHINGTON -- Unexpected retirements and divisive Republican primary races have turned the battle for control of the US Senate into a tossup, with November's elections shaping up as another series of excruciatingly tight contests to fill the closely divided chamber, according to campaign officials in both parties.

Democrats, who less than a year ago faced dim chances of overcoming the GOP's 51-48 majority, now lead in the polls in all seven competitive races in which head-to-head public polling has been done, a trend that would produce a gain of three Democratic seats, in Oklahoma, Colorado, and Alaska.

Control of the Senate could be critical for the next president. If Democrat John F. Kerry wins but faces a GOP-controlled Congress, it is unlikely he will be able to pass major domestic initiatives. If Bush wins reelection but is hamstrung by a Democratic-controlled Senate, he will have a more difficult time getting his judicial nominations approved.

In Oklahoma, Democrat Brad Carson's strong showing in early opinion polls could mean a gain for the Democrats and a new Native American senator. In Colorado's race to replace Republican Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Democrat Ken Salazar, leading in polls, could become the first Latino in the Senate in a quarter-century. Alaska, once a guaranteed Republican stronghold, now appears in play, with incumbent Republican Lisa Murkowski -- who replaced her father, Frank, when he became governor -- trailing slightly in the polls.

And a contentious Republican primary in Pennsylvania could offer Democrats an opportunity there if challenger Pat Toomey upsets veteran moderate Republican Senator Arlen Specter April 27.

Democrats still face an uphill battle, since they must defend more open seats than Republicans. Edging up their numbers from the current 49 (that number includes Senator James Jeffords of Vermont, an Independent who caucuses with Democrats) would mean hanging on to five of the six seats in play that Democrats now hold, plus picking up three more. That could be tough when almost all of the competitive states voted for George W. Bush in 2000. But on paper, at least, the Democrats' numbers for the 2004 Senate races have never looked sunnier.

"The Democrats' opportunities have certainly grown. The playing field is larger. There's at least a scenario now for a Democratic takeover in the Senate," said Stuart Rothenberg, an independent political analyst.

University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato, who meticulously tracks House and Senate races, called the battle for the Senate "up in the air."

"Six months ago, [Republicans] told me they would hit 55" seats, Sabato said. "Now the challenge for them is just holding on."

Republican strategist Bill McInturff added: "I still think on balance the Republicans are more likely to retain the Senate," but the Alaska, Oklahoma, Illinois, and Colorado races "at least allow the Democrats to talk credibly about the Senate being more up for grabs than we thought."

On first glance, the states with open seats look like strong GOP opportunities: North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. Colorado and Alaska, where Murkowski is filling out the term of her father, have reflected the largely GOP West in elections for Senate and president.

But with the exception of Georgia, Democrats are running surprisingly well in these Bush territory states, aided by retirements, individual candidate vulnerabilities, and Republican primaries that are pitting the right wing of the party against moderates.

Polls show Democrats likely to hang on to their party's seats in the Carolinas, Florida, and South Dakota. In Louisiana, which has an open primary, polls do not clearly show what would happen in a head-to-head race between a Republican and a Democratic candidate. The state voted for Bush in 2000 but subsequently elected a Democratic governor and reelected its Democratic senator, Mary Landrieu.

Part of the GOP's troubles are within its own ranks. In Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, and Florida, cultural conservatives are challenging more moderate Republicans for the chance to be senator, and the battles are forcing Republicans to spend money early.

In Pennsylvania, Toomey has narrowed Specter's lead in the polls by attacking the four-term senator as too liberal.

"I think it's the most important race in the country for ideological reasons," said Stephen Moore, president of the conservative Club for Growth, which he said so far has raised $1 million in donations for Toomey and another $1 million for ads.

Specter, for his part, has flooded the airwaves with ads casting Toomey as an extremist. "He's not far right -- he's far out," one Specter ad says. But while Toomey appeals to conservatives, analysts believe he would face a tough fight against the Democratic contender, Representative Joe Hoeffel.

The intraparty wars are being waged as well in Florida -- where conservative Bill McCollum is challenging the more moderate Mel Martinez for the Republican nomination -- and in Oklahoma. There, Carson, a member of the Cherokee Nation, is benefiting from a testy fight between Kirk Humphreys, a candidate favored by the Republican establishment, and Tom Coburn, the pick of his party's ultraconservatives.

"There is a battle between social-movement conservatives and country-club Republicans," said Brad Woodhouse, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, predicting that whoever wins will be weakened by the fight.

In Illinois, no public polling has been done on the general election between Democratic nominee Barak Obama and Republican Jack Ryan. But Obama, who received more votes in a multicandidate primary than all of the Republican contenders combined, is strongly positioned to become the Senate's next African-American member, independent analysts say.

In other races, Republicans are struggling to win reliably Republican seats with weakened candidates. Alaska's Murkowski has suffered from charges of nepotism since her father appointed her to fill the Senate seat he held for nearly 22 years. He has not been popular as governor, adding to his daughter's woes.

"I don't think Frank Murkowski is part of the problem -- I think he is the problem," Rothenberg said. "She's a really good candidate, but she's her father's daughter, and that's her name."

A recent poll showed former governor Tony Knowles ahead of Murkowski, 45 percent to 42 percent. Vice President Dick Cheney is scheduled to travel to Alaska to campaign for Murkowski, and first lady Laura Bush plans to attend a fund-raiser for her in Washington.

Republicans note that they have raised more money than Democratic candidates and say their candidates will gain more steam after their primaries. The polls, they say, remain close, and the traditional GOP advantages in Southern and Western states could be amplified by a strong Bush showing in the presidential race.

Democrats are "basically saying they're going to draw an inside straight with two cards," said Dan Allen, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committtee. "It's not implausible . . . but we're cautiously optimistic."

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