US Senate goes down to the wire

Eleventh-hour polls cast some doubt on a Democratic takeover.

In the Senate, it's too close to call.

On the eve of the 2006 midterm elections, a last-minute tightening in the polls of Senate contests from Montana to Rhode Island to Maryland has thrown some doubt into the calculations of pundits who had come to see a Democratic takeover as possible.

Many analysts – including conservatives – can see a clear path to a Democratic net gain of five seats in the 100-seat chamber, which would bring the partisan balance sheet to a 50-50 tie. That would effectively keep control in the hands of the Republicans, with Vice President Cheney casting tie-breaking votes in his role as president of the Senate.

But it was that elusive sixth seat that had kept many analysts from firmly predicting a change in control. Now, the last-minute volatility both in the nationwide polls gauging voter preferences and in individual races leaves the outcome even more in doubt.

"There tends to be a tightening at the end, when people begin to perhaps reappraise the preferences that they had early on," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "New evidence comes in. People are reluctant to abandon old party allegiances."

Politicians themselves can become brand names in their home states, and thus, voters in Rhode Island and Montana who once appeared set to throw out their two Republican senators Lincoln Chafee and Conrad Burns may be having second thoughts, judging by the tightening of polls there. Senator Chafee, a first-termer whose father was long-serving Sen. John Chafee, can count on some reserve affection for the Chafee name and for Lincoln's status as the Senate's most liberal Republican; Senator Burns, who was caught up in the Jack Abramoff scandal, also may be coming out the other end of that crucible.

"My sense is that Burns may have gone through his roughest patch a couple of months ago," says Dr. Baker. "Sometimes voters are willing to hold onto an incumbent despite the warts."

And sometimes they're not. With the national mood toxic toward the Republican-controlled Capitol, and analysts foreseeing a "wave" election likely to sweep the Democrats into power in the House, it may too much for the most vulnerable Republican incumbents to withstand.

Still, not only do Democrats have to win the Montana and Rhode Island seats to build a Senate majority, they must also succeed in traditionally Republican areas. Two GOP incumbents are also widely seen as heading for defeat – Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, the No. 3 Republican in the Senate, and Mike DeWine of Ohio. If Burns and Chafee go down and no Democratic-held seats change control – a big "if" – the Democrats must win two out of the three "fire wall" seats, in Tennessee, Virginia, and Missouri.

Of those three, Tennessee seems the most difficult for Democrats to take. Rep. Harold Ford (D) has turned what should have been a Republican romp for former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker (R) into a tight contest. The incumbent, Senate Republican leader Bill Frist, is retiring, and open seats are usually harder to defend, but Mr. Ford's charismatic campaign style has made the race competitive. If he wins, he would be the first African-American senator from the South since Reconstruction.

Virginia and Missouri remain firmly in the tossup column going into Tuesday's vote. The Missouri race pits state auditor Claire McCaskill (D) against incumbent Sen. Jim Talent (R) – with a ballot initiative on stem-cell research possibly holding the key to the outcome. Senator Talent opposes a proposed state constitutional amendment allowing embryonic stem-cell research while Ms. McCaskill supports it. The issue could drive turnout, but it remains unclear who benefits more.

In Virginia, Republican Sen. George Allen's troubled reelection campaign is the big surprise of the '06 midterms. Once thought to be a top contender for the 2008 presidential race, he could be facing the end of his political career. A series of stumbles that began in August, when Senator Allen called a volunteer for the opposing campaign "macaca," has made conservative Democrat Jim Webb competitive.

To Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York, head of his party's Senate campaign committee, the fact that his party even has a shot at taking a majority is astounding. At the start of the cycle, he and Senate minority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada agreed that "if we can hold our own, we will be happy, and if we can pick up seats we'll be really happy," he told reporters last week.

Now, it's all over but the shouting. At a Monday morning rally at the Vienna, Va., subway stop, Allen was often drowned out by antiwar protesters shouting: "Get out of Iraq!," "The troops hate you," "Let's Go Webb," and "Macaca," as Allen supporters tried to drown them out with cries of "Allen! Allen!"

"It's a close race," said Allen. "Iraqis have to stand up ... the one thing we cannot do is leave Iraq a safe haven for terrorists."

Commenting on what has become one of the most negative campaigns in the nation, Allen said: "We have tried throughout the whole campaign to talk about ideas, issues. Instead, we've run into this sort of thing." He gestured to the shouting protesters, one of whom stumbles into the senator, nearly knocking him over.

"I know Virginia, and if you want to serve Virginia, you better know Virginia, and that is what we are going to see [in the vote] tomorrow," he said, exiting to the day's next event.

Staff writer Gail Russell Chaddock contributed to this report.

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