Battle for the Senate

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TAKING AIM Bush is determined to see Saddam’s threat eliminated

Candidates, like cat burglars, step more carefully when they are carrying a loaded gun. So when South Dakota's Republican Senate candidate John Thune challenges Tim Johnson for opposing missile defense, the TV ad shows an image of Saddam Hussein. "Is this a question of patriotism?" the ad asks. "No. It's a question of judgment." It's an artful but nervy charge to level at Johnson, who actually supports the use of force against Iraq and whose son Brooks is the only congressional son to serve in Afghanistan. Not one to waste a good sound bite, Minnesota Republican Norm Coleman attacks incumbent Paul Wellstone for proposals like a seven-year freeze in defense spending. "It's not about Paul's patriotism," Coleman says. "It's his judgment that's wrong." If Republicans are implicitly arguing that our national security would best be served by a Republican Senate, Democrats counter that our financial security depends on the opposite. A nasty new spot on the Democratic National Committee website shows a cartoon figure of President Bush saying "Trust me" as he pushes an old woman in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs — actually a stock-market chart.

In a normal midterm election, it's often the House races, where candidates generally are not well known or well funded, that get tousled by the big national issues of the day. Senate races tend to be more separate, individual affairs, and until recently, the South Dakota race was mainly about meat-packing and ethanol subsidies. But for different reasons, candidates from both parties this year are trying to paint the bigger picture: Republicans in hope of surfing on Bush's continued popularity, and Democrats because they now face the possibility of losing their one-vote hold on the Senate. A unified Republican government, they warn, will decide everything from the shape of the next Supreme Court to whether Social Security, environmental rules or business regulations survive in anything like their current form. Since Independent voters in particular tend to prefer their government divided and its powers balanced, the Democrats are hoping that they can be persuaded to ignore candidates' deficiencies and vote strategically — that countering the power of a Republican White House is more important than, say, punishing Wellstone for breaking his promise to retire after two terms or Iowa's Tom Harkin for obtaining a tape of his opponent's strategy meeting. But as long as war fever surpasses economic chills and President Bush's poll numbers remain aloft, the Democrats may have a hard time persuading anyone to care.

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One state where the local drama is just too rich to ignore is New Jersey: Democratic Senator Robert (the Torch) Torricelli sputtered out of the race last week once it was clear he was not going to survive the unending revelations about his ethical lapses. It is one thing for a candidate to withdraw suddenly because of a family crisis or a health problem; the Torch apparently bowed out because it looked as if he was going to lose. In a reprise of Election 2000, it fell to the courts — including the Supremes — to decide whether this is a legal way to play the game. But Torricelli's decision was the first good news the Democrats have had in weeks, since his designated replacement, Frank Lautenberg, a three-term Senate veteran, brings lots of advantages. He's a multimillionaire who can pay his own way; 9 out of 10 voters recognize his name, a plus in a state where advertising is pricey; and his G.O.P. opponent, businessman Douglas Forrester, loses his greatest distinction — not being Torricelli. By week's end, Republicans were muttering that they should try this gambit too — yank Forrester and stick a proven pro like Christie Todd Whitman into the race.

The sudden uncertainty has come as a shock to Democrats, who just six weeks ago were weighing their odds of also reclaiming the House, where Republicans hold a six-seat edge. Of the 34 Senate races, 16 seats are truly in play; control of the body is likely to turn on the outcome of tight contests in Colorado, New Hampshire, Missouri, Georgia, Arkansas and elsewhere, which makes the Republicans' fund-raising edge all the more valuable. This will be the last election fluffed up by unlimited soft-money donations before the new campaign-finance laws kick in. Democrats have raised one-third less than the G.O.P. and are madly shuffling funds from state to state, depending on who is viewed as "the most vulnerable Democrat of the week," in the words of one strategist. Party officials concede that the need to help prop up Torricelli prevented them from funneling money to Oregon, where, with enough help, challenger Bill Bradbury might stand a chance against incumbent Republican Gordon Smith. Now it may betoo late. "The fact that we're talking about the real possibility of picking up seats in the House, and of taking back the Senate, is amazing if you think about it," says a senior White House official. "Things couldn't be better." Though Democrats hold out hope that people will wake up when they open their third-quarter 401(k) statements, so far the economy has not given them the momentum they are looking for. "In nautical terms," says Ed Gillespie, a Republican consultant with ties to the Bush White House, "it's dead calm out there."

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