U.S. Senate prospects fade quickly

Sunday, October 26th 2003, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- An open U.S. Senate seat in Oklahoma usually equals a horde of politicians lining up for a six-year job as one of the nation's 100 senators in Washington, D.C.

So when Don Nickles announced he was retiring after 24 years, several prominent GOP and Democratic officeholders immediately had visions of succeeding the Ponca City Republican.

In less than three weeks, however, major prospect after major prospect took themselves out of the race.

Among them were Republican Rep. Ernest Istook of the 5th Congressional District and Democratic Attorney General Drew Edmondson -- each counted by many as sure bets to run.

Others choosing not to run included Democratic Treasurer Robert Butkin, state Sen. Jim Dunlap, R-Bartlesville, and GOP Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin.

The exit of so many prospects to succeed Nickles has cleared a path -- at least at this point -- for the nomination of Democratic Rep. Brad Carson of Claremore, who represents the 2nd Congressional District, and Republican Kirk Humphreys, Oklahoma City's outgoing mayor.

At week's end, Carson and little-known Jim Rogers of Midwest City were the only declared Democratic candidates and Humphreys was the only Republican who was definitely running.

Party leaders cautioned that it's a long time to the filing period at the end of June and other candidates could still emerge.

Still, it is an unusual situation for so many prospective big-name candidates to take themselves out of a race for an open Senate seat so soon in the process.

"I don't know if we've ever had a situation where we're 13 months out from the election and it appears the field is set," says state Democratic Chairman Jay Parmley.

The situation contrasts starkly with 1980, when Republican Henry Bellmon left the Senate. Nickles emerged from obscurity to win the GOP nomination and grab a general election victory during the Reagan landslide.

That year, 11 candidates filed for the Democratic nomination, including Andy Coats, former Oklahoma City prosecutor and mayor; two former state Senate leaders and Robert S. Kerr Jr., the son of a former senator and governor.

The Republican field counted two millionaires, including John Zink, the early front-runner whom Nickles defeated in a runoff. Nickles then upended Coats, now dean of the University of Oklahoma College of Law, in the general election.

Gary Jones, state GOP chairman, said the fact that the Senate lineup looks like it could be settled so early may be an outgrowth of early interest in the 2004 presidential race spurred by a flurry of Democratic presidential contenders campaigning in the state.

"But we're still a year away from the election and there is always the possibility someone will jump up there and run," Jones said.

Veteran state Rep. Mike Fair, R-Oklahoma City, an ally of Istook's, said he is considering running and others have urged former U.S. Rep. Tom Coburn of Muskogee to make the race.

On the Democratic side, state Insurance Commissioner Carroll Fisher and former state Rep. Don McCorkell confirmed they are considering it.

Also, Istook said he was "closing the door to running for the Senate, but I'm not locking it."

During his announcement that he planned to remain in the House, Istook took a shot at the GOP leaders who have gathered around Humphreys' candidacy, saying Republicans need someone who can stand on his own, "without having to be propped up by someone else."

Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., was among prominent Republicans who got behind Humphreys' candidacy early and urged Istook to stay in the House.

That prompted Parmley to issue a news release referring to the GOP selection process as "a coronation" and to Humphreys as "King Kirk."

Jones replied that from his vantage point, with so many prominent Democrats bowing out, "it appears their process isn't a whole lot different from ours, although maybe they've kept it a little quieter. I'm sure certain people did what they could to clear the field (for Carson)."

Parmley denied any pressure was put on Butkin or Edmondson, while conceding there are benefits from not having a bitter primary battle.

"It's easier to raise money and a lot less likely that you are going to divide your party," he said.


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