The Fight For Senate Control

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Republican congressmen in Georgia and South Dakota are inching closer to challenging freshman Democratic incumbents in GOP-leaning states that could be key to determining control of the Senate.

South Dakota Rep. John Thune intends to announce Monday his plans for 2002, and Georgia Rep. Saxby Chambliss is expected to disclose his intentions in a week or so.

Democrats hold a 50-49-1 advantage in the Senate. They must defend 14 seats next year compared with 20 for Republicans, who are losing three of their strongest conservatives - Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Phil Gramm of Texas.

GOP victories over South Dakota's Tim Johnson and Georgia's Max Cleland would give the party a big boost toward regaining control of the chamber they lost when Vermont's James Jeffords dropped his Republican identity and became an independent last spring.

Thune had been leaning toward running for governor but has been lobbied by President Bush and other Republicans to take on Johnson. The freshman senator received 51 percent of the votes in upsetting GOP Sen. Larry Pressler in 1996.

Thune has scheduled a news conference at a high school gymnasium in his hometown of Murdo, S.D. Although Republicans in Washington expect he will announce a Senate campaign, neither he nor his aides will confirm it.

"Come to Murdo on Monday and find out," said Christine Iverson, a Thune spokeswoman.

Thune, 40, is a strong conservative who was won more than 70 percent of the votes in two re-election bids as South Dakota's lone House member.

Johnson, 54, served five terms as South Dakota's congressman before defeating Pressler, the only incumbent senator to lose in 1996. He can expect help from Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a fellow South Dakota Democrat.

In Georgia, Chambliss has told colleagues he is strongly considering taking on Cleland, who headed the Veterans Administration under President Carter and was elected in 1996 to replace the retiring Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn.

"He will have a decision within a week or two," said Rep. John Linder, one of six Georgia Republicans who met Wednesday with Chambliss.

Chambliss, a lawyer first elected in 1994, represents the 8th District, which has been substantially changed by the Georgia Legislature and now is more favorable to a Democrat.

Rep. Mac Collins, R-Ga., is expected to challenge Cleland if Chambliss does not.

By Christopher Thorne © MMI The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed