Cover Story

Election 2002-closer than it seems

Issue: "Politics Post 9/11," Nov. 17, 2001

If it's November, it must be near to Election Day. Never mind that the crucial mid-term elections are still a year away, in November of 2002. In a political cycle that requires candidates to raise tens of millions of dollars, line up endorsements, put together a staff, and scare off primary challengers, anything under a year still qualifies as "near." Despite the president's lack of visible politicking in last week's gubernatorial races, Mr. Bush is clearly concerned about next November's contests. Historically, whichever party is in the White House will see its numbers in Congress erode during off-year elections. That would be a disastrous result for the GOP this time around, since it has already lost the Senate and has only a tenuous grip on the House. With the stakes so high, Mr. Bush has been working behind the scenes to recruit top candidates and clear the field of potential challengers. He appears to be focused mainly on the Senate, where his domestic agenda before Sept. 11 was stymied by Democratic partisanship. Here's a look at the administration's highest hopes-and deepest worries-for next November. South Dakota As Senate Majority Leader, South Dakota's Tom Daschle is a thorn in the president's side and a possible opponent in 2004. That's why the race to reelect the state's low-profile junior senator promises to be one of the most bitterly fought contests anywhere. Sen. Tim Johnson defeated a Republican incumbent in 1996 by just 2 percentage points, making him an automatic target six years later. But the GOP didn't have an A-list contender until the White House got involved. Determined to recruit the strongest possible candidate for the race, President Bush met twice with Rep. John Thune, a social conservative and the state's lone member of Congress. Mr. Thune had planned to run for governor, a race widely viewed as a sure thing given his huge popularity statewide. But the presidential arm-twisting did the trick, and Mr. Thune announced for the much dicier Senate contest last month. The election is sure to be seen as a proxy for Bush vs. Daschle. Mr. Johnson is a political protégé of the majority leader, who recently termed the race the "most important political effort" on his agenda. And now that the president has recruited his man, he'll likely hit the stump in South Dakota, where he clobbered Al Gore by 22 points. Early GOP polls show Mr. Thune with a 6 point lead over the Democratic incumbent. Minnesota President Bush hand-picked a candidate in the Gopher state, as well-but some Republicans are none too happy about his choice. At the administration's urging, conservative hopefuls cleared the decks to make way for St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, a Democrat-turned-Republican with decidedly liberal social views. He'll face Sen. Paul Wellstone, one of the most left-wing members of the Senate. Initial polls show the race in a virtual dead heat, so Republicans are sure to flood the state with money and star power. With the president busy running a war, his father dropped by for a fundraiser in late October-a sure sign that Republicans have this seat near the top of their wish list. New Jersey Like so many politicians in his state, New Jersey Sen. Robert Torricelli finds himself under a cloud of financial scandal. But Republicans so far seem unable to capitalize on the misfortunes of the freshman Democrat. North Carolina Another race that the president seems to be avoiding is the GOP contest to succeed a retiring Jesse Helms. Maybe that's because Elizabeth Dole is well on the way to an uncontested primary, even without help from the White House.
The former Cabinet member and presidential candidate has already scared off a handful of potential challengers, including a former senator and a congressman. But some conservatives, angered by what they see as Mrs. Dole's waffling on abortion and gun control, are urging former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot to stay in the race. In an effort to ward off her final opponent, Mrs. Dole on Nov. 1 released a poll showing she leads Mr. Vinroot by a 5-to-1 margin. The same poll had her leading former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, the most likely Democratic nominee, by nearly 40 points.

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