No. 3 GOP Spot Is Competitive

Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) believes he has lined up the votes to win Thursday’s election for Senate Republican Conference chairman, but the race remains fluid enough that Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.) could still eke out a victory.

Alexander has “more than enough votes, with a little margin” in case any of the GOP senators who have committed to him switch and vote for Burr, said a source close to Alexander.

Burr “has a lot of ground to make up” to win, the source said.

Burr’s camp, however, questioned the validity of that whip count, predicting the North Carolina Republican will emerge as the third-ranking GOP leader in the Senate after Thursday’s secret balloting.

While Alexander has publicly and privately campaigned to be conference chairman, the chief communications strategist and spokesman for the GOP in the Senate, Burr has preferred to work the race privately.

Alexander clearly appears to have an edge among older Republican senators. And Sens. John Warner (Va.) and Orrin G. Hatch (Utah) are working to nail down the “Old Bulls” for him.

Burr’s support comes from the younger, more conservative faction of the Republican Conference, making the race one with both generational and ideological angles.

Still lingering Wednesday was the question of whether Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas), who dropped out of the conference chairmanship race on Wednesday, would back one of the remaining contenders.

An aide denied rumors that she was working on behalf of Alexander or Burr. “Sen. Hutchison has said she will not endorse or help either candidate for conference chairman,” said her spokesman, Matt Mackowiak.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), who is set to take over as minority whip for the retiring Sen. Trent Lott (Miss.), are also staying out of the race.

Sen. Bob Bennett (Utah), one of McConnell’s closest allies, is backing Alexander, but GOP leadership aides caution that this does not mean McConnell is necessarily backing him as well.