Red State Dems Distancing From Party

Democrats running for the Senate in Republican-leaning states want to be more like President Bush clearing brush in Crawford, Texas, than John Kerry (search) windsurfing off Nantucket Island, Mass.

Democratic chances of regaining control of the Senate may depend on candidates who run away from their party platform and their presidential contender.

"We've got eight or nine really competitive races and just about all are in strong Bush states," said Larry Sabato (search), director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "Democrats have some bad luck here."

Republicans control the Senate 51-48 with one Democratic-leaning independent, but the minority party's gap becomes wider on an election map where most close races are in states likely to go for Bush.

Of the nine states with the most competitive Senate races, Democratic challenger Kerry is seriously contesting only Florida and Colorado. He's effectively conceding Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Alaska. Democrats have to win seven of those nine seats to control the Senate.

There could be enough close races among the 34 taking place to leave control in doubt on election night — and possibly until Dec. 4, when Louisiana would have a runoff if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote Tuesday.

The need to persuade Bush voters in conservative states to split their tickets has led to strong pledges of independence — and support of some Republican positions — by several Democratic candidates.

— Rep. Brad Carson, running against former Republican Rep. Tom Coburn in Oklahoma, said state voters "look at George Bush in this presidential race and they say, 'Oh, that's me. He's clearing brush in Crawford. John Kerry is windsurfing off Nantucket."'

— Erskine Bowles, the North Carolina Democrat running against GOP Rep. Richard Burr, commented, "I don't think I need to be in lockstep with anybody other than the people of North Carolina."

— Former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles, the Democrat trying to defeat endangered Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, supports Bush's top energy priority, opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

— The Senate's top Democrat, Minority Leader Tom Daschle in South Dakota, has run an ad showing him embracing the president when Bush spoke to Congress shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. The message was that Daschle can work with Bush when necessary. Republican opponent John Thune says Daschle is a major source of the gridlock that has blocked much of Bush's agenda in Congress.

— South Carolina's superintendent of education, Democratic candidate Inez Tenenbaum, has said she supports a ban on gay marriage and agreed with the invasion of Iraq.

Republicans have countered with ads showing their Democratic opponents pictured with liberals like Sens. Ted Kennedy, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Daschle.

In Alaska, Knowles has to overcome a huge Republican majority that gave Bush a 31 percent margin in 2000. He presents himself as a middle-of-the road Democrat. Murkowski has turned more to the right.

"When she was in the legislature, she was moderate," said Carl Shepro, a political science professor at the University of Alaska. "She supported a woman's right to choose. Now she has come out on the conservative side."

Nepotism remains a big issue. Many voters are angry that she was appointed by her father, Gov. Frank Murkowski, to fill his unexpired Senate term.

The closeness of DeMint-Tenenbaum race in South Carolina "is astonishing because it's a very Republican state," said Laura Woliver, professor of political science and women's studies at the University of South Carolina.

Tenenbaum has been helped by remarks from DeMint, including that gays and unwed, pregnant women are unfit to be public school teachers.

Carson, the Democratic candidate in Oklahoma, is trying to win in a state that gave Bush a 22 point margin over Al Gore. He wears cowboy boots and jeans and drives a beat-up pickup truck. Like Tenenbaum, he's been helped by his opponent's strident comments.

Coburn, an obstetrician, has said he favors the death penalty for abortionists, called state legislators "a bunch of crapheads" and referred to "rampant lesbianism" in some Oklahoma schools.

"Coburn's stock in trade is he was forthright, he said what he thought and was earnest," said Dr. Keith Gaddie, a University of Oklahoma political science professor. "Democrats have to find a way to run as far to the right as possible while holding on to the Democratic base."

In Colorado, Republican Peter Coors, on leave as chief executive of Coors Brewing Co., has been criticized by some conservatives because his company's health plan covered abortions. He pledged to end the coverage but refused to answer a reporter's question about whether it has been dropped.

While Coors has opposed gay marriage, his company also provides benefits for same-sex partners.

"He's had to walk a tightrope," said University of Colorado political science professor Ken Bickers.

In other key races:

Louisiana: Republican David Vitter, a GOP congressman, has an overwhelming lead but the question is whether he can avoid a runoff. The leading Democrat is Rep. Chris John, portrayed by Republicans as a "Washington liberal." John, however, has supported the Iraq war and Bush's tax cuts.

Florida: Republican Mel Martinez echoes Bush's support for allowing younger workers to privately invest some of their Social Security contributions. He opposes abortion and embryonic stem cell research. Democrat Betty Castor favors abortion rights and stem cell research, and opposes private investment of Social Security money.

Kentucky: Republican Sen. Jim Bunning has seen his lead over Democrat Daniel Mongiardo erode after several gaffes. Bunning made an unsubstantiated claim his wife was beat "black and blue" by members of Mongiardo's campaign staff and said his opponent looks like one of Saddam Hussein's sons.