TELEPHONE lines are humming between the White House and at least five states with sizzling Senate races - Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Rhode Island, and Hawaii. President Bush and his political staff detect an opportunity to pick off several United States Senate seats this fall - enough to put the GOP within striking distance of majority control for the first time since 1986.
Near the top of the White House list is Nebraska, where Democratic Sen. Jim Exon is battling one of the most aggressive Republican challengers in his 20-year elective career. His opponent: Hal Daub, a popular former congressman and trumpet-playing attorney from Omaha.
``Daub is one of the most tenacious campaigners around, a real dawn-to-dusk type,'' says a White House aide. ``Daub's campaign is a real sleeper in this group.''
Aware of the president's interest, the White House staff is monitoring Senate campaigns in all the pivotal states on a weekly basis to get updates on polls, strategy, and issues.
The president also is joining the fray. Here in Nebraska, Bush has already helped with fundraising, as has Vice President Dan Quayle and Senate Republican leader Robert Dole of Kansas.
Nebraska's race promises to be close and hard fought. Senator Exon, who narrowly escaped defeat six years ago at the hands of a less-experienced Republican foe, says he expects a particularly negative campaign from the GOP.
``I know what kind of an operator [Daub] is,'' Exon says. ``We've tried to anticipate what trickery'' might be pulled. Exon charges that Daub was ``hand-picked'' for this race by Republican National Chairman Lee Atwater, who has a reputation among Democrats for bareknuckled politicking.
Daub denies that he plans a negative race, calling that Exon's forte, but he promises to put a bright spotlight on Exon's record.
``Exon has been around a long, long time, and he hasn't done much,'' Daub charges. ``He's become a `Washington Labor-Democrat.'... That's not Nebraska.''
Ironically, the most divisive nationwide issue this year - abortion - generates few sparks in the Exon-Daub race. Both men oppose abortion except in narrowly defined circumstances, so they have little to debate.
Instead, they are expected to trade shots over an old-fashioned issue that often separates the two major political parties - money. How to spend it. Or whether to spend it at all.
At issue is the so-called ``peace dividend'' that is expected to result from lowered tensions with the Soviet Union. Potential military savings could reach tens of billions of dollars by the mid-1990s.
Daub wants to pour every penny of the peace dividend into reducing the federal budget deficit, which could reach more than $100 billion during the current fiscal year.
Exon wants to put half the peace dividend into cutting the federal deficit, and the other half into federal programs for education, agriculture, and health care.
Daub sneers at Exon's promise to boost federal spending on social programs.
``That's the traditional, typical, liberal Democratic view - pass around the money a little bit, it's election year. Start the old pork barrel and see how many votes you can buy,'' Daub says.
``Exon's not willing to stand up and say: `The first and most serious threat to the future of our country and for the security of our country lies in the fiscal insanity that's being practiced in Washington.'.. Where's the stalwart, conservative Jim Exon? Passing out money we don't have.''
Exon counters that Daub's adamant position is far too rigid.
``Saying that every penny we reduce the military budget should go directly to cut the budget deficit - that kind of puts Daub in a box. What's he going to do about health care, and agriculture, and education, and all these other things?'' Exon wonders.
Both candidates recognize that one of the most explosive issues this fall could be taxes. Leaders from the White House and Congress are negotiating a budget deal, and new taxes could be part of the final package. That could force Exon and other senators to vote on new taxes just weeks before Election Day.
Exon says the people of Nebraska are skeptical about any new taxes. They worry that ``if we raise taxes, we spend more money. [And] history has proved that they're right about this,'' Exon says. The senator's own position on taxes closely tracks the president's policy.
``I am not for any tax increases other than what the president put in the budget recommendation - about $14 billion. But it's only responsible to recognize that we have a terrible problem on our hands. And if the budget summit comes up with tax increases, I'll at least look at it.''
Daub is more hostile to tax hikes. He argues that it's time to look ``at outflows, not inflows.'' He calls for an ``aggregate freeze'' on federal spending.
``Let's commit ourselves next year to not spending in total any more than we spent this year,'' he says. Daub concedes that if the president comes out for higher taxes, it might be necessary to oppose his own party leader.
``I am convinced that the proposition that the best way to better manage the deficit is to raise taxes is folly... If we send more revenue to Washington, Nebraskans believe that just means more government, bigger government, more central activity, and less efficiency.''