Donald Lambro

John Ensign, the new Senate Republican campaign chairman, knows the odds are against him in 2008 when at least five GOP seats are vulnerable, versus one or two for the Democrats.

He said as much in a wide-ranging interview in which he delivered a withering political critique of his party's core problems, telling me the GOP had lost its "heart and soul."

But the upbeat, high-energy Nevada senator, who has taken a tough job few, if any, of his colleagues wanted, laid out an aggressive candidate-recruitment effort and campaign strategy that has put senior White House political strategist Karl Rove at the center of his operations.

"We meet with Karl Rove at the White House regularly," Ensign said. "I think Karl is one of the most brilliant political minds in the country. I take advantage of that."

But even with Rove's influential guiding hand, this election cycle does not look good for Republicans when the issue of the Iraq war will loom even larger than it did in 2006, the year the GOP lost six seats and control of the Senate.

A spate of new scandals has only added to its troubles, from the U.S. attorney firings to acknowledged abuses in the FBI's information-gathering system in the war on terror to rundown-housing problems at Walter Reed Army Hospital that went uncorrected.

Ensign's problem: 21 Republican seats will be at stake next year but only 12 for the Democrats, most of which look rock-solid safe. "The odds are we are going to have more risks than they will, and it turns out that we do have more risks," he said.

He ticked off five Republican seats -- in Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Oregon and New Hampshire -- that are in danger. The only two Democrats on the watch list: South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson who is still recovering from a stroke, and Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu who squeaked into a second term with 52 percent of the vote.

Since taking the helm of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, he said he has "cleaned the place out," cutting its bureaucracy, hiring a new fund-raising team, replacing its outdated computer system and asking senators to get more involved in raising money for the NRSC, recruitment and political outreach. Ensign said Senate Republicans were outflanked last year when Senate Democratic campaign chairman Chuck Schumer "took (fund-raising) to a new level and kind of caught everybody (here) off guard" - out-raising the NRSC by $31 million.


Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.