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The GOP's Mixed Week

Mixed news for the GOP last week: The presidential race remains very close now that President Bush's skid has halted; a GOP runoff in South Carolina has set the stage for the first Senate race centering on trade since a Michigan fight in 1984; and the Republican Senate nominee in Illinois took a hit that drove him out of the race.

In national polls conducted in June, the results of three-way trial heats involving Bush, Sen. John Kerry, and independent candidate Ralph Nader ranged from a Bush lead of 4 points (Pew Research Center/Princeton Survey Research) to a Kerry lead of 6 points (Los Angeles Times). The Times's poll clearly oversampled Democrats: By 13 percentage points, more respondents identified themselves as Democrats than as Republicans. That's far more Democrats than in other recent surveys.

Averaging the six major national polls conducted in June and released through Wednesday gives Kerry a lead of just under 2 percentage points in three-way contests.

Bush's early-May free fall has ended. The incumbent clearly benefited from the Iraq turmoil's being knocked off the front pages by President Reagan's death and, to a lesser extent, by the attention paid to President Clinton's new book. But with the Iraq transition date of June 30 fast approaching, attention will undoubtedly shift back to Iraq, for better or worse -- more likely for worse in Bush's case.

The U.S. economy, meanwhile, continues to improve, although the evidence is mixed on whether the public agrees and will give Bush credit for the turnaround. If the economy continues getting better, Bush will undoubtedly receive more praise. Yet his handling of Iraq may well offset any of his gains on the economic front.

The Bush White House stayed out of the intraparty fight in South Carolina, where private tracking correctly forecast that Rep. Jim DeMint would easily defeat former Gov. David Beasley in the Senate primary runoff. DeMint drew 59 percent of the vote to Beasley's 41 percent.

In the June 8 primary, Beasley led the field with 37 percent of the vote. DeMint narrowly squeezed by Thomas Ravenel, 27 percent to 26 percent, to qualify for the runoff. Extremely well-known candidates who manage to win just a third of the primary vote usually don't go on to win a runoff. And Beasley was no exception.

Would DeMint or Beasley have been the stronger general-election candidate? That's unclear. DeMint appears to be squeaky clean. Beasley is a controversial, polarizing person, with personal baggage. But DeMint's ardent, unapologetic support for free trade in a state that, although long a beneficiary of foreign investment, has taken its lumps from foreign competition, particularly in the textile industry, could prove to be a problem for him.

Democrats will try to portray this race as a referendum on trade. If he is to win, DeMint will need to broaden the race's focus to include social issues. South Carolina is not necessarily the place that national Republican leaders or business want the trade battle to be fought. Beasley's nomination would have taken trade off the table, because Beasley's switch from "free trade" to "fair trade" (using each side's preferred label) made his position indistinguishable from that of Inez Tenenbaum, the state superintendent of education, who is the Democratic nominee. Although South Carolina is arguably the most conservative and most Republican state in the South, Tenenbaum is a formidable candidate. And this is likely to be a very close race.

The Senate race in Illinois took an unexpected swerve when a California judge released portions of the previously sealed files from the custody fight that pitted Jack Ryan, now the GOP's Senate nominee, against his ex-wife, television actress Jeri Ryan. The files contain allegations by Jeri Ryan that her husband had taken her to sex clubs in New York City and Paris and tried to get her to have sex with him at one club while others watched.

Jack Ryan's days as a candidate ended shortly thereafter. As a Midwestern Republican House member commented, "Well, I guess you can't say he's a country club Republican." The state GOP must now select someone else to face state Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee. Obama had a double-digit lead before the allegations surfaced. In their absence, the race probably would have tightened. Now the GOP will almost certainly lose the seat unless it fields a strong replacement for Ryan.

It's been quite a week.

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