An embarrassing recruitment problem could trouble Republicans next year — the inability to find willing and able candidates to run in key U.S. Senate races in 2004.

Some potential candidates publicly nudged by the White House in the last few months have declined to run, leading Democrats to charge that despite his seemingly limitless popularity, President Bush may not necessarily have the power to direct recruits into political battles.

GOP hopes have faded in Illinois since former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar (search) said he would not run to fill the seat being vacated by Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, who last month announced his retirement after only one term in office. Bush, as well as White House political advisor Karl Rove (search) and members of the GOP leadership, reportedly unsuccessfully put the hard sell to Edgar.

“You never want to say no to the president,” Edgar told reporters May 9 as he did just that.

Rep. Jennifer Dunn (search), R-Wash., also turned down the president’s request to run against Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.  According to reports, Bush’s desire to see Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez run to fill Florida Sen. Bob Graham’s seat also was quashed.

“It has all played out very publicly and it has all failed very publicly,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Spokesman Brad Woodhouse. “They really should be doing better.”

But Republicans and some political observers balk at speculation, saying it is too early in the campaign season to cry disaster for the GOP.

“The candidate to some extent has to be willing and has to be coaxable — some people are coaxable and some are not,” said Stu Rothenberg, political analyst and author of the Rothenberg Report. “There are a lot of question marks, but it doesn’t strike me that there is any new systematic problems.”

Dan Allen, spokesman for the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, said that some of the GOP’s most successful candidates in the 2002 campaign, including Sens. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., and Jim Talent, R-Mo., didn’t officially announce their candidacy until the fall of 2001.

"We’re working closely with leaders at the state level to find out who's interested in the races and working with them to recruit the best candidates," he said. “We’re not waving a banner. We didn’t do that in the last cycle and we’re not doing it now.”

Allen pointed out that Democrats have their own share of recruitment problems, especially in key states that have been targeted as “up for grabs” by the polls. Those include Alaska, where Democrats hope to take on GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski (search), appointed last year by her father Frank Murkowski, who left the seat to run successfully for governor last year. So far, Democrats have yet to convince their best bet, former Gov. Tony Knowles (search), to enter the race.

In Georgia, where Democratic Sen. Zell Miller has announced his retirement, no Democrat has tossed a hat into the ring. Republicans there are gearing up for a tough primary between conservative Rep. Mac Collins and moderate Rep. Johnny Isakson.

Party officials and analysts agree that the South and West are likely battlegrounds in 2004, and say Democrats will have a tougher time defending their 48 seats against the Republicans' 51 because they will have to defend 19 seats up for grabs while Republicans have to hold on to only 15.

States where Democrats and Republicans are having trouble recruiting include:

 — North Carolina, where Democratic Sen. John Edwards is running for president and has not yet decided whether he will run for reelection. So far, no one has officially announced a bid for his seat, though former Clinton chief of staff and unsuccessful 2002 Senate candidate Erskine Bowles has set up an exploratory committee. On the GOP side, Reps. Walter Jones and Richard Burr are also considering runs.

— South Carolina, where 81-year-old Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings said this week that he will retire if Democrats can find a viable candidate to replace him. The Bush administration is reportedly recruiting Rep. Jim DeMint to run. Two other Republicans, former state Attorney General Charlie Condon and Myrtle Beach Mayor Mark McBride, have also expressed interest in the seat.

— California, where Republicans are racing to find someone to run against Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, whom some have speculated is vulnerable following tepid initial campaign fund-raising reports. A number of California House Republicans — including Reps. Mary Bono and Chris Cox — have shown interest but have not announced.

— South Dakota, where the GOP is hot to challenge Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. Republican John Thune, who narrowly failed to win the Senate seat held by Democrat Tim Johnson in 2002, could take a second shot.

— Arkansas, where Republicans are buzzing about a possible challenge to Sen. Blanche Lincoln's bid by former GOP Rep. Asa Hutchinson, now an undersecretary to the new Homeland Security Department. So far, Hutchinson has denied such rumors. Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee has also been mentioned as a possible challenger.