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To Take Senate, Democrats Try Tapping 'Businesscrats'

TOM BRUGGERE studied for his graduate-school entrance exams by flashlight in the trenches of Vietnam.

He then went on to make millions in Oregon as founder of Mentor Graphics. Now he's running as a Democrat for the United States Senate. If he turns out to be a good campaigner - his political skills remain untested - he has a shot at winning the Oregon seat, analysts say.

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Mr. Bruggere is just one of the so-called "businesscrats" encouraged to run for the Capitol's more exclusive chamber by Sen. Bob Kerrey (D) of Nebraska, himself a former businessman, Vietnam vet, and chairman of the Democratic Senate committee in charge of recruitment.

Senator Kerrey's strategy may be paying off: A year ago, Republicans had their sights on controlling 60 of the Senate's 100 seats, an important threshold. Now, the Democrats are looking stronger than they expected to be - especially in a year with record retirements (eight Democrat, five GOP), which left long-held Democratic seats vulnerable.

Kerrey is suggesting the Democrats could even retake control of the Senate, where they currently hold 47 seats to the Republicans' 53. That is highly optimistic, analysts say, though if a number of races that currently look like tossups break in the Democrats' favor, it's not inconceivable.

Still, the odds are that the GOP will retain control of the Senate, says Jennifer Duffy, an analyst of Senate races at Cook & Company.

Del Ali, vice-president of the nonpartisan Mason-Dixon polling firm, agrees. "I don't think the Democrats will get it back, and we could see the Republicans pick up one or two more," he says. "I'm just looking at the math of the open seats."

The "math" goes like this: Eight Democrats are retiring from the Senate this year, four of them in the South, which is undergoing a political realignment toward the GOP. Two of the open Democratic seats, in Alabama and Arkansas, are leaning Republican, says Ms. Duffy.

If the Democrats lose those two, they need to make a net gain of five to reach parity with the Republicans, a tall order. But attractive recruits by Kerrey keep the Democrats in the ballgame.

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Cloning Bob Kerreys

In Washington, these "businesscrats" are also dubbed "Kerrey candidates," because they are in many ways clones of the Nebraska Democrat - young, moderate, and successful in business. Many are political novices and some, Vietnam vets. Mr. Bruggere of Oregon says his decision to run was triggered by the retirement of Oregon's moderate GOP senator, Mark Hatfield, and not by any recruiting by Kerrey. But, he adds, "Kerrey was encouraging."

Other wealthy Democrats on the trail include Elliott Close of South Carolina, Charles Sanders of North Carolina, James Sears Bryant of Oklahoma, Walter Minnick of Idaho, and Mark Warner of Virginia. All of those men begin as underdogs in battles that will likely pit them against incumbents. (Of the incumbents, only Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia, no relation to Mark Warner, faces a tough primary battle.)

Kerrey knows that a candidate's ability to deploy personal wealth doesn't guarantee success; witness the expensive defeats of Senate candidate Michael Huffington of California and presidential candidate Steve Forbes. In addition, political novices may turn out to be bad campaigners, and are fertile territory for "opposition research" into personal and business histories.

But at the very least, the Kerrey candidates could help change the party's image more toward fiscal conservatism and a limited role for government. Some traditional Democrats grumble that their party is just trying to become imitation GOP. In North Carolina, where Sen. Jesse Helms (R) is running for reelection, Kerrey encouraged a wealthy businessman to run where an experienced politician (ex-Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt) was already in the race.

"Maybe we've stepped on some toes, but we're just covering our bases," says Steve Jarding, spokesman for the Senate campaign committee.

The North Carolina situation is especially touchy, because Mr. Gantt is black. And, say some analysts privately, it's that much harder for an African-American - even an attractive candidate like Gantt - to win statewide office in a southern state.

In two states, Kerrey has managed to recruit perhaps the only Democrats capable of saving open Senate seats for their party - Gov. Ben Nelson of Nebraska (a former business executive) and Max Cleland, Georgia's popular former secretary of state who lost three limbs in Vietnam.

The Democrats also have a good shot at saving their open seat in Illinois, following the Republicans' surprise nomination of the conservative Al Salvi.

In Maine, the surprise retirement of the popular incumbent Republican, William Cohen, has created another opportunity for the Democrats to pick up a seat. The Democratic primary pits "businesscrat" Richard Spencer - co-founder of Tom's of Maine toothpaste - against ex-Gov. Joe Brennan. The Republican field is unsettled, pitting ex-gubernatorial candidate Susan Collins against financier Robert Monks and state senator John Hathaway.

But on the flip side, the Democrats are iffy in seats that used to be safe. Incumbent Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry faces perhaps the only Republican in the state who could pry him lose, Gov. William Weld. The retirement of Sen. Bill Bradley (D) of New Jersey has spawned a tight race there. Sens. Max Baucus (D) of Montana and Paul Wellstone of Minnesota are vulnerable.

The math according to the GOP

The Republicans remain confident they'll hold the Senate, and probably make a net gain of a seat or two. Again, says Gordon Hensley of the Republicans' Senate campaign committee, look at the open seats. "It's not a question of whether the Democrats will catch us," he says, "but whether they'll lose additional seats."

Of course, it's still early in the election season. Most voters haven't focused yet, and many races are unsettled. Some Democratic optimism is based on early polling that is virtually meaningless.

Analysts also advise paying close attention to "generic" polls, surveys in which voters give a preference for which party they would like to see holding a congressional seat, without a name attached. Two years ago, when the Republicans swept control of both houses without losing a single incumbent, the generic polls tilted toward Republicans. Now the pendulum is swinging slightly toward Democrats.

This is also a presidential election year, when the top of both tickets can influence congressional races. In the South, that bodes ill for Democrats. But elsewhere, the effect remains an open question.

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