For Senate, jostling for position in 2006

Surprise retirement of Jeffords and trouble around Santorum lead both parties to eye new strategies.

Two numbers stand out in the race for the Senate next year, which is already heating up: 51 and 60.

For Democrats, scraping together a spare majority of 51 seats in the 100-seat chamber feels almost quixotic, given how few seats are in play. For Republicans, getting from the current 55-seat majority to a 60-seat filibuster proof supermajority feels equally out of reach.

But even though it's early in the cycle, it's never too early to dream. Two bits of news this week have fueled both parties' dream machines - one for the Republicans out of Vermont and the other for the Democrats out of Pennsylvania.

The surprise retirement announcement of Vermont's Jim Jeffords, the Senate's only independent, who typically votes with the Democrats, has set tongues wagging across the Green Mountain State and in Washington.

Already, the Democrats have sent signals that they will not put up a candidate, clearing the way for Bernie Sanders - Vermont's lone congressman (and the House's only independent, but one who also caucuses with the Democrats) - to run head to head against whomever the GOP puts up. If that Republican is Gov. Jim Douglas, his party's strongest potential candidate, it's anybody's guess who wins.

In Pennsylvania, a poll by Quinnipiac University shows incumbent Sen. Rick Santorum - the No. 3 Republican in the Senate - losing ground in a matchup against the likely Democratic nominee, State treasurer Robert Casey Jr. Of the 1,395 voters surveyed April 13-18, 49 percent favored Mr. Casey and 35 percent favored Senator Santorum. In Quinnipiac's February poll, the margin was 46 percent Casey, 41 percent Santorum.

Santorum, a two-term senator known for his outspoken religious conservative views, will be hard to defeat. Pennsylvania tends to reelect incumbents. And polling 20 months before an election arguably means nothing. But if you're Casey, and you need to show the money people you have a shot, polls like this are good news.

"That is going to be the marquee race this cycle, without a doubt," says Jennifer Duffy, Senate-watcher for the Cook Political Report. "For Democrats, Santorum is their Daschle," she adds, referring to the former Senate Democratic leader from South Dakota who was defeated last November. "Pennsylvania is a blue state, and Democrats feel it should be their seat."

Still, Pennsylvania isn't "blue" by much; John Kerry won the presidential race there by just 2 percent. And, says Ms. Duffy, "I think Santorum gets underestimated."

A Casey-Santorum duel would pit two Catholics who oppose abortion rights against one another, at a time when the Catholic vote and social issues are top of mind. Casey benefits from high name recognition; his late father, former Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey Sr., is perhaps most remembered for the antiabortion speech he wasn't allowed to give at the 1992 Democratic National Convention.

The junior Casey is a "run-of-the-mill Democrat except for his stance on abortion," says Clay Richards, assistant director of the Quinnipiac Polling Institute in Hamden, Ct.

For both parties, in both houses of Congress, the key to grabbing large numbers of seats from the opposition in midterm elections, which usually go state by state, district by district, is to nationalize the race. For now, it's not clear if that's possible; but it will be the sixth year of George W. Bush's presidency, a time notorious for losses by the president's party. With Republicans ruling both houses of Congress, in addition to the White House, the Democrats have an opportunity to turn the 2006 elections into a referendum on one-party rule in Washington.

In the Quinnipiac poll, respondents were asked about Santorum's role in supporting Bush's plan to partially privatize Social Security and in supporting federal intervention in the recent Terri Schiavo case. Both issues hurt the senator. Even if the Schiavo right-to-die case has faded in memory by November 2006, Social Security probably will not have - and Democrats can be expected to play that big. Pennsylvania has a large proportion of senior citizens - second only to Florida - and seniors show the biggest opposition to Bush's plan. Other national issues that could play big in individual Senate and House races are the economy and Iraq.

In Vermont, the prospect of the wild-haired, outspoken socialist Congressman Sanders as a senator is not one that everyone can visualize. But Garrison Nelson, a political scientist at the University of Vermont, gives Sanders credit for playing well with the House Democrats, including leader Nancy Pelosi, and for founding the House Progressive Caucus, which now has more than 50 members.

"He is the longest-serving independent in US House history, and he has a strong statewide organization," says Professor Nelson, who notes that the last three occupants of Jeffords's Senate seat are all former House members. "As an at-large [statewide] House seat, that makes it easier to move up."

But if Governor Douglas jumps in, it will be a tough race. And, notes Duffy of the Cook Report, the last time Sanders had to mount a serious campaign was 1994. Douglas has been running - and winning - races regularly over the years, for state treasurer, secretary of state, and most recently, governor.

Douglas vs. Sanders would be "a great race," says Duffy. "You're talking about two candidates who are equally well-known and equally well-defined. That's when you might get national factors making a difference."

For both parties, too, the coming departure of Jeffords marks a bittersweet moment. It was Jeffords who, in 2001, jumped ship from the GOP at a time when the Senate was split 50-50, and even though he did not formally join the Democrats, he effectively threw control of the Senate to them - complicating the newly elected President Bush's task. Ever since, says Nelson of the University of Vermont, Jeffords has never quite fit in anywhere in the Senate.

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