Democrats positioned to widen majority in US Senate

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WASHINGTON, Oct 7 (Reuters) Democrats are positioned to bolster their Senate majority in next year's elections, which would give them more clout regardless who succeeds President George W Bush in the White House.

With Republicans dogged by retirements, scandals and the Iraq war, there's an outside chance Democrats will gain as many as nine seats in the 100-member Senate in the November 2008 elections, which would give them a pivotal 60.

That is the number of votes needed to clear Republican procedural roadblocks, which have been used to thwart the Democrats' efforts to force a change in Bush's policy on the Iraq war, particularly plans to withdraw US troops.

The last time Democrats had an overriding majority in the Senate was in the 1977-1979 congressional session, when they held 61 seats.

''Sixty is not outside the realm of possibility,'' said Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

''But for that to happen, everything would have to break their way,'' she said. ''Right now, it's way too early to say.'' With the elections a year away, many Republicans are distancing themselves from Bush, whose approval rating was around 33 per cent in recent polls. But they remain largely tied to his unpopular stance on the Iraq war, now in its fifth year.

Many are concerned about their future and Senate Democrats have raised more in campaign contributions than Republicans.

''We're going to lose seats,'' predicted a senior Senate Republican aide. ''The political climate is not good for us.'' Republicans now hold 22 of the 34 Senate seats up for re-election next year, while Democrats have 12. The Democrats all intend to seek re-election, and most are seen as shoo-ins.

Five Republican incumbents have already announced they will not seek another six-year term in 2008.

For sharply different reasons, Sens. Pete Domenici of New Mexico and Larry Craig of Idaho last week followed fellow Republicans John Warner of Virginia, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Wayne Allard of Colorado, in announcing they would not to seek re-election.

Domenici, 75, cited declining health, while Craig, 62, pointed to his disputed conviction in a undercover sex-sting in an airport men's room.

The Craig conviction has embarrassed Republicans, who portray themselves as the party of ''conservative family values.'' The party also has been shaken by an expanding political corruption investigation in Alaska that has touched Sen. Ted Stevens, the longest serving Republican senator ever.

Stevens, who first joined the Senate in 1968, has denied any wrongdoing. But the probe has suddenly helped make the 83-year-old Alaskan vulnerable in the 2008 elections.

The Iraq war helped Democrats win control of Congress last year. It may also enable them to widen their majorities next year in the House of Representatives as well as the Senate.

Yet Republicans see some hope in polls that show only about one in four Americans approves of the Democratic-led Congress, which has been stifled by partisan gridlock.

''Democrats have yet to prove that they can lead this country effectively and voters are taking note,'' said Rebecca Fisher, a spokeswoman for the party's Senate campaign committee. She predicted that Republicans would take back control of the Senate.

Democrats brush aside such talk, noting surveys still find that Americans prefer Democrats over Republicans in Congress.

But many are reluctant to predict how well they may do in the elections.

''Democrats want to tamp down expectations of any big (Senate) gains because they fear it could fire up the Republican base,'' said the Cook Political Report's Duffy.

As if to underline the point, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, who in 2005 said it would ''take a miracle'' for his party to win the Senate in 2006, declines to offer any predictions about 2008. He simply says his top goal is to ''maintain a majority.'' Sen Charles Schumer of New York, who heads the Senate Democratic campaign committee, also refuses to discuss how many seats his party may gain. But he says, ''We feel very good about our chances.'' REUTERS JK RK1830

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