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Both sides leery of Senate races

As Republicans and Democrats struggle to complete their lineup of candidates for next year's Senate elections, the two parties have a common set of problems: missed opportunities, bad luck, and self-inflicted wounds that dim their hopes for significant gains.

In at least a half-dozen states, Republicans have failed to recruit their first choices -- and sometimes their second or third picks -- for races against potentially vulnerable Democratic incumbents. And in Illinois, where a GOP-held seat is at stake, former governor Jim Edgar and others resisted White House pressure to run, bolstering Democratic chances.

In at least three states where Republicans once had high hopes, Democratic Senators Harry M. Reid of Nevada, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, and Byron L. Dorgan of North Dakota appear to be on the road to reelection because potentially strong GOP challengers -- Representative Jim Gibbons of Nevada, Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, and former North Dakota governor Ed Schafer -- declined to run.

The Democrats have also had some recruiting disappointments. But their gravest problem is the retirement -- or possible retirement -- of incumbents in the increasingly Republican South.

So far, three Democratic incumbents -- Zell Miller of Georgia, Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina, and presidential contender John Edwards of North Carolina -- have decided against running for reelection. Two others, John Breaux of Louisiana and Bob Graham of Florida, another presidential candidate, have not announced decisions.

With Republicans controlling the Senate 51 to 48, Democrats need only two more seats to regain the majority they lost in 2002. (The Senate's lone independent, James M. Jeffords of Vermont, usually votes with the Democrats.) But they appear more likely to lose ground through retirements than to gain seats because of GOP vulnerabilities.

The situation suggests that Republicans will keep control of the Senate, but casts doubt on whether they will expand their majority sufficiently to take full command, according to several independent analysts.

On balance, "I'd rather be in the Republicans' shoes, but, with the Senate this close, you can't give up too many opportunities," said Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the Cook Political Report. "If Republicans could have capitalized on all the potential opportunities out there, they could have put themselves in the position of picking up three or four seats. Now, they're only in a position to pick up one or two seats."

Stuart Rothenberg, another independent analyst of congressional politics, figures Republicans could have picked up five or six seats if they had recruited their top-choice candidates. But now, he said, they seem to be looking at a gain of one to three seats.

It is not unusual for prominent figures to dodge pressure to run for the Senate, or for senators to step down for a variety of reasons. Their personal decisions, however, can have a big impact. In Nevada, for instance, Gibbons was the only prominent Republican who showed interest in challenging Reid, even though Reid -- the second-ranking member of the Senate Democratic leadership -- won by only a whisker in 1998. But Gibbons said no, and Republicans concede it will be hard to find another candidate with his potential.

In Georgia, the retiring Miller, who often votes with Republicans, probably could have won another term with ease. But now Republicans are favored, although not certain, to pick up the seat. Similarly, Breaux is regarded as a shoo-in if he runs for reelection. But if he does not, the race will become significantly more competitive.

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