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Worth Watching

The Senate races in Hawaii and Missouri have taken interesting and potentially important turns. Of the two, the Aloha State's was the real shocker.

Two-term Rep. Ed Case's Jan. 19 announcement that he is challenging 81-year-old Sen. Daniel Akaka in Hawaii's September 23 Democratic primary certainly dropped jaws among political insiders in both Washington and Hawaii.

Now in his second full term, Akaka is nearly invisible in the Senate. His extremely low profile bolsters the 53-year-old Case's argument that although Hawaii still has the supremely influential Daniel Inouye in the Senate, the state would be wise to have a younger senator building seniority for the day when the 81-year-old Inouye will no longer be around.

Of course, Hawaii's other House Democrat, Neil Abercrombie, 67, must be nearly apoplectic; he has been patiently waiting in line for the next Senate vacancy.

Obviously, Akaka's pitch will be that he still has things he wants to accomplish before retiring. He is sure to hint that he deserves better treatment and that Case should emulate Abercrombie and wait his turn, because that's the way it's done in Hawaii.

The whole matter probably won't affect the partisan lineup of either chamber: Democrats are likely to win both the Senate race and the contest for Case's House seat.

For years, Hawaii Republicans have managed to produce just one stellar political figure at a time. For a while, it was then-Rep. Pat Saiki, who unsuccessfully challenged Akaka in 1990 shortly after he was appointed to the Senate.

Now the party's leading light is Gov. Linda Lingle, who is expected to run for re-election this year rather than enter the fray for Akaka's seat. Even before Case made his surprise announcement, Democratic strategists must have considered that if something were to happen to one of the state's aging senators, a Republican governor would likely appoint a Republican to the Senate.

The struggle for Akaka's seat could be well worth watching. The incumbent will need to persuade Democratic voters that he is essential, which might be difficult since they are already convinced that Inouye fills that role.

While Inouye can be expected to come to Akaka's aid, his assistance might be a bit different from the support that Sen. Ted Stevens gave to fellow Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski in 2004. Keeping the relatively young Murkowski in office could be cast as an investment in her party's future. That's not an argument that can be made on Akaka's behalf.

The race has not even begun to take shape, but Case's announcement was one of those surprises that keep this business interesting.

In Missouri, meanwhile, a Research 2000 poll of 800 likely voters taken January 16-18 for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch showed Democratic state Auditor Claire McCaskill locked in a statistical dead heat with first-term GOP Sen. Jim Talent. McCaskill drew 47 percent to Talent's 44 percent.

This contest's tight start comes as no surprise. McCaskill is a fixture in state Democratic politics. She has served in the Legislature and as Jackson County prosecutor. She is in her second term as auditor.

McCaskill made her biggest splash in 2004, when she challenged unpopular Gov. Bob Holden in the Democratic primary. She beat him, 52 percent to 45 percent, but lost the general election to then-Secretary of State Matt Blunt, 51 percent to 48 percent.

Since McCaskill spent much of 2004 on the air and campaigning throughout the state, voters know her well. Still, the conventional wisdom in Washington has been that this is an uphill race for Democrats.

Earlier polls -- a Democratic survey conducted last spring, and a poll using automated interviewers whose results didn't seem very reliable -- suggested that the race would be very close. However, the Research 2000 survey, combined with the earlier polls, suggests that the race isn't uphill at all.

So, the news out of Missouri is good for Senate Democrats, and the news out of Hawaii isn't bad for them, except for Akaka.

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