Robert Novak

 The NRSC did not get the candidates it wanted in the two "Red" states with the weakest Democratic incumbent senators: Ben Nelson in Nebraska and Bill Nelson in Florida.

 In Nebraska, President Bush named Gov. Mike Johanns, who seemed a sure winner over Nelson, as secretary of Agriculture. The two strongest remaining GOP possibilities -- Gov. Dave Heineman and Rep. Tom Osborne -- are running against each other for governor. That leaves former state Attorney General Don Stenberg, who lost to Nelson in 2000, and a self-financed political neophyte, Peter Ricketts, among others.

 In Florida, the Republican establishment tried and failed to find an alternative to Rep. Katherine Harris. But now that Harris is clearly the candidate against Nelson, the NRSC still has not embraced her.

 It remains to be seen whether two other vulnerable Democrats in "Red" states -- Robert Byrd in West Virginia and Kent Conrad in North Dakota -- will have a free ride. The credible challengers -- Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.) and Gov. John Hoeven (N.D.) -- may not wish to risk uphill races in a climate that is negative for Republicans. If they do not run and win, the Republicans could be looking at an overall loss of two seats that could climb to four.

 When Elizabeth Dole made a late run after the 2004 elections to overcome Sen. Norm Coleman's lead for the NRSC chairmanship, Coleman backers expressed doubt she would succeed at recruiting. But it would be unfair to make Dole the scapegoat. Recruiting responsibility is shared by the White House and the Republican National Committee. Beyond a recruiter's skills is widespread fear in party circles that 2006 will not be a good year to run as a Republican. That mindset should worry the party's strategists more than Hillary Clinton's ideological aberrations.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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