Nickles keeping political officials guessing

Saturday, June 14th 2003, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

Sen. Don Nickles is keeping political leaders guessing about his 2004 re-election plans, but he's raising money for a race just in case.

Nickles, R-Okla., was scheduled to be in Oklahoma City Monday evening for a fund-raising event at a private home.

In a May 16 letter, he told supporters he would be accompanied to the event by U.S. Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans and invited them to help host the event or become a member of the ``Senate Club 2004.''

In the letter, Nickles thanked supporters for their past giving and discussed his role as Senate Budget Committee chairman ``working with President Bush to create jobs and grow the economy.''

He also wrote of ``future challenges.''

``With the 2004 election fast approaching, I must begin to prepare now,'' he said.

``I hope I can count on your continued support and look forward to seeing you June 16.''

For months, Nickles has hinted publicly he may not seek re-election, saying he had not even ``decided to decide.''

His stance led to speculation that he was disheartened and considering retirement after not moving up from assistant majority leader to the top Senate spot after Trent Lott was forced out.

Aides insist that is not so and say Nickles is relishing his role as budget chairman, getting along fine with Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., the new majority leader.

Prior to the Oklahoma fund-raiser, Nickles and Evans will take part in the dedication of the Reed Center, a conference complex near Tinker Air Force Base and Rose State College in Midwest City.

In a June 12 news release from Nickles' office, Evans was called a major player in Bush's effort to ``boost the economy and create good-paying jobs in Oklahoma and across the nation.''

Despite Nickles' activities, Democratic state Chairman Jay Parmley says he thinks the Ponca City native will not run for a fifth six-year term.

``My money is that he won't,'' Parmley said, arguing Nickles' votes against the 2002 farm bill and the recently passed child care tax credit make him vulnerable. Nickles also no longer owns a home in the state.

Wishful thinking, says Gary Jones, state Republican chairman, who points to Nickles popularity. Democrats gave him a pass for a fourth term in 1998.

That year, Nickles got 66.4 percent of the vote against Democrat Don E. Carroll and two independents. Carroll, a political unknown, had been forced into a runoff by a candidate who died before the election.

Jones says he doesn't know what Nickles will do for sure. ``I wish I knew. I would like to see him continue to run. It would be good for the country, good for the state and, quite honestly, good for the party.''

Another sign that Nickles might run again is the lack of significant political maneuvering by major Republicans who might seek to replace him.

If Nickles bowed out, Jones said Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphries is among the obvious possible GOP candidates. Others mentioned include Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin, former Reps. J.C. Watts and Tom Coburn and current Rep. Ernest Istook and other members of the Republican delegation.

Parmley said Democratic Rep. Brad Carson of Muskogee has expressed an interest, whether or not Nickles runs again.

If Nickles is not on the scene, Parmley said three or four other well-known Democrats could get into the race, and ``I think we will have an excellent chance of winning.''

As a big vote-getter, Jones said Nickles' decision could have a big impact on the 2004 election, which will feature an all-out effort by the GOP to take over the state House.

He thinks the GOP will hold onto the U.S. Senate seat in any event, but with Nickles on the ballot, ``I think the Democrats have no aspirations for winning.''

Jones says Republicans' hopes for gains in 2004 have been lifted by last week's special election in state Senate District 7, where little-known Republican Jess Davis of McAlester got 45 percent of the vote in losing to Richard Lerblance, a freshmen state representative from Hartshorne.

It shows people in the district ``are ready for a change,'' said Jones, noting that Democrats outnumber Republicans 7-1 in the district.

For decades, the district was represented in the Senate by Democrat Gene Stipe of McAlester, who resigned and pleaded guilty to giving excessive campaign contributions to Democrat Walt Roberts' congressional campaign.

Parmley said he was surprised the contest was as close as it was. He added that Lerblance was hurt by a tough primary race and a turnout for a special election that is never as high as a general election.

``It was still a 9 to 10 point win. It's not like we barely scraped by,'' he said.


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