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Just as everyone was trying to divine the meaning of the selection of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to be the 265th pope, a different and unexpected puff of smoke became visible -- a puff that signaled independent Sen. Jim Jeffords's decision not to seek a fourth term.

Jeffords, 70, who served two years in the Vermont state Senate, four years as state attorney general, and 14 years in the U.S. House as a Republican, was elected as a Republican to the U.S. Senate in 1988. After twice winning re-election, he left the GOP in May 2001, effectively turning control of the Senate over to Democrats until after the 2002 election.

Many Republicans harbor ill will toward Jeffords because of his defection, but he was not expected to face significant opposition next year. In announcing his retirement, Jeffords cited concerns about his health and that of his wife, who has cancer.

Jeffords's decision creates his state's first open Senate seat since 1988. Just how competitive will next year's contest be? A fellow New Englander, Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, carried the state by a whopping 20 points in November's presidential election. In 2000 and 2004, George W. Bush received only about 40 percent of the Vermont vote. That suggests that Democrats start with a big advantage.

But another way of looking at it is that even a conservative Texas Republican can get 40 percent of the vote in Vermont. And the odds would seem pretty good that the Vermont GOP will nominate a moderate -- someone in the mold of the late Gov. Richard Snelling, former Sen. Robert Stafford, or the current governor, James Douglas. If that's the case, the Senate race will likely be more competitive than the last two presidential votes suggest.

The most prominent Republicans being mentioned as possible contenders are Douglas and Richard Tarrant. Douglas, 53, was elected to the state House in 1972; in his third term, at age 25, he rose to the post of majority leader. He left the Legislature in 1979 to join Gov. Snelling's staff. The next year, Douglas was elected secretary of state, a job he was re-elected to five times. In 1994, he won the state treasurer's post. He was elected governor in 2000 with 45 percent of the vote and was re-elected handily in 2004 with 59 percent.

Tarrant, 60, is chairman of the Board of IDX Systems, the health care technology company he founded in 1969. IDX had revenues of $521 million last year. Of the two Republicans, Douglas is considered the more likely to run.

On the Democratic side, at-large Rep. Bernie Sanders, an independent who -- like Jeffords -- caucuses with Democrats, is almost certain to run. Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, a former governor, has indicated through staff that he is committed to staying in his current job.

While Republicans might be able to clear the field for Douglas if he runs, Democrats might not be able to avoid a primary. Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle, the 2004 Democratic gubernatorial nominee, may look at the race. State Attorney General William Sorrell, Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz, and state Treasurer Jeb Spaulding are also possible candidates.

Decades ago, Sanders, 63, ran for the U.S. Senate twice and governor once as a candidate of the Liberty Union Party, but he garnered only 6 percent of the vote in his best performance. Those races, however, were before he was elected mayor of Burlington, the state's largest city, in 1981. Running as an independent, he defeated a six-term, Democratic incumbent by a handful of votes. While serving four two-year terms as mayor, Sanders again ran unsuccessfully for governor, that time as an independent.

In 1988, Sanders came in third while running for the state's only seat in the U.S. House. In 1990, he ran for the House again, beating GOP incumbent Peter Smith by 16 points. Since then, Sanders has easily won re-election, except in the GOP tidal wave year of 1994.

If Sanders runs, Democrats will certainly try to clear the field for him. Yet that could be an awkward process if Sanders won't officially join their party.

A Sanders-Douglas contest would be competitive. Both men are certainly well known to voters in their tiny state. That could help Douglas minimize the importance of party labels. He still might need to distance himself from the GOP's national leaders. But would Vermont want to expand the Senate majority of a national party that is considerably more conservative than Douglas and the state? Sanders would have to hope the answer is, "Absolutely not."

 
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