CBSN

GOP Race Heats Up

Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the former presidential candidate who has long sought more power in Congress, has the inside track to win the race for Senate Republican Conference chairman, according to GOP senators and top aides. But Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina is pulling enough support from younger conservative senators to threaten an upset.

Both leadership aspirants caught a break Tuesday when Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) bowed out of the race for the Senate’s third-ranking Republican leadership post. And she seems set now to retain command of the GOP’s Senate policy shop, a less influential post.

Alexander believes he has 12 to 15 solid votes in the race for conference chairman, according to a GOP senator close to him. He needs a majority of the 49 Republican senators to win. And Alexander believes this gives him a solid, but by no means insurmountable, lead over Burr heading into Thursday’s closed-door, secret-ballot voting.

Burr is believed to have six to eight bankable votes, meaning half of the 49 Republican senators are still in play, said the senators and aides, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the secretive and personal nature of the races.

“Wednesday is going to be really busy. We’re hopefully going to see this thing shake out,” said one Republican senator who has not yet decided whom he’ll back.

Alexander refused to make any public predictions on the outcome of the race Tuesday, saying that he learned not to do that after losing the minority whip race to Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who is now retiring, at the start of this Congress. Alexander believed he had enough votes to win that race heading into the vote, and he was surprised when Lott came from behind to win.

“I am not going to make any predictions until all the votes are counted on Thursday,” Alexander said. “I’ve been through this before.”

Burr’s camp disputes the notion that Alexander is winning the race, noting that Burr is still working hard to round up the 25 votes needed for victory.

Alexander convened a meeting of his core supporters just off the Senate floor Tuesday, including Republican Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and John Warner of Virginia.

Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) said he was backing Alexander because of their long friendship and because he did not vote for Alexander when he ran for minority whip in January, instead supporting Lott.

“I believe that [Alexander] will be able to do a great job of growing the base of the party,” said Coleman, who faces a potentially tough reelection battle next year. Coleman suggested that Alexander, who is seen as more moderate than Burr, could help the GOP attract independent voters that will help vulnerable Republicans like him win in 2008.

Alexander said his goal as the party’s chief spokesman, which is the main job of conference chairman, would be to woo those independent voters by making sure they are exposed to the GOP message.

“My goal is to make the conference more effective,” Alexander said, adding that it would allow the party to “attract more independents.”

 

He also praised Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), the current conference chairman, for his work in the post but claimed that “sometimes Republicans forget the rest of the message” beyond sticking with President Bush on the Iraq war and other White House initiatives.

A Republican source close to the leadership elections suggested the group of undecided Republicans may be down to roughly a dozen, adding that Alexander was leading among those who have made private commitments to either man, although it was impossible to verify the claim.

Burr has refused to make any public statements on the race or release any whip counts, preferring to privately put together a winning coalition.

Burr’s spporters, at least among those GOP senators who are public so far, include Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina.

The key to a Burr victory will be younger senators, as well as those who believe his more conservative outlook is what Senate Republicans need heading into next year to draw conservative voters to the polls.
“In typical Burr fashion, he’s working hard to round up the votes he needs,” said Burr’s press secretary, Chris Walker. “He’s a workhorse, and as you’d expect in a race like this, he’ll continue to work for every vote.”

With the contest so fluid, the large bloc of undecided Republicans is being courted heavily by both men.

“It’s a good race. I met with both of them today,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). “Every time one leaves, I think I am for them, and the minute the next one comes in, I think I am for them. But both of them have a lot to offer. I have not made a decision yet.”

Other swing votes could include Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and John Cornyn (R-Texas), who haven’t signaled how they will vote, as well as Kyl and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Neither Kyl nor McConnell has declared whom he supports, and the two are not likely to do so publicly, although they can move votes in private.

Another question is whether Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whom Burr has endorsed for president, will be attending Thursday’s vote. Alexander is backing former Sen. Fred Thompson, a fellow Tennessee Republican. McCain’s office did not return several calls seeking information on McCain’s schedule for the week, but his absence will mean an even number of votes, leaving room for a potential tie.

Hutchison, who dropped out of the conference chairmanship race Tuesday, claimed that she was never really in it, blaming the media for the perception that she was. Still, she had been calling fellow Republicans all last week seeking support.

“It’s not really a failure, because I really did not decide to do it,” Hutchison insisted, bristling at her colleagues who questioned her conservative credentials and declaring: “I am a conservative.”

Hutchison will remain in the leadership as chairwoman of the Republican Policy Committee, but she has already signaled that she will not seek reelection in 2012. She has also repeatedly stated her desire to run for governor of Texas in 2010, meaning she could leave even before her term is up.