Republicans Eye Sen. Dodd's Conn. Seat

Sen. Chris Dodd, the chairman of the Senate Banking and Housing Committee and former presidential candidate has survived a series of scandals. Dodd faces a re-election bid in 2010, and the five-term Democrat looks vulnerable.

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The quick approval of the credit card bill may come as a relief to its major Senate sponsor. Chris Dodd is chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. That makes him a central figure in facing the financial crisis, a very prominent position and a dangerous one. Earlier this year a cartoonist for the Economist magazine drew Senator Dodd juggling knives and dropping several, including one that landed on his head. The Connecticut Democrat is the longest serving senator in the history of his state. He first won in 1980. But a recent poll has him trailing several potential Republican challengers.

NPR's Brian Naylor reports on Dodd's political trouble.

BRIAN NAYLOR: A good rule of thumb in politics: if you're an incumbent and your approval rating among voters is below 50 percent, you're facing a tough re-election campaign. Right now, according to the latest poll by Connecticut's Quinnipiac University, five-term incumbent Chris Dodd has only a 33 percent job approval rating. Fifty-eight percent of Connecticut voters say they disapprove of the job he's doing. It's a remarkable turnaround.

Professor HOWARD REITER (University of Connecticut): There are a lot of people out there who are hurting, and he represents a fairly convenient target. Normally his political instincts have been excellent, but I think starting with the Countrywide deal, there was an accumulation of small things.

NAYLOR: Howard Reiter, a political science professor at the University of Connecticut, says Dodd has committed a series of missteps, starting with the revelation last year that he received two reduced-rate mortgages from Countrywide Financial, the lender at the heart of the subprime mortgage crisis.

Mr. REITER: He didn't really handle that issue with his usual deftness. He basically kind of stonewalled and said he was going to let out the information, but at some future point, and a long time elapsed before he let more of the information out. It just led to an impression that he had something to hide.

NAYLOR: Dodd took loans from Countrywide for a home in Washington and one in Connecticut. Dodd admitted getting the loans, but denied any wrongdoing and said he had not been aware of any sweetheart deal.

Senator CHRIS DODD (Democrat, Connecticut): The idea that you'd sit there and be willing to compromise your position here in order to get some deal out of a lending institution on a mortgage, I just reject out of hand. I would never, ever, ever be a part of that.

NAYLOR: But Dodd's troubles with Connecticut voters began even earlier, in his 2007 run for the White House. Dodd took the unusual step of moving his wife and young daughters from Connecticut to Iowa as he campaigned in the caucuses there. Dodd told CNN at the time…

Senator DODD: Well, I get to see my family. I mean this is just a basic - that was the motivation behind this.

NAYLOR: But the move didn't sit well with many Connecticut residents. The most recent issue to hurt Dodd: those infamous bonuses that executives that troubled insurer AIG got. Dodd was blamed for inserting language in the economic stimulus bill the preserved the bonuses while the company was being bailed out by taxpayers.

Oh, and there's the charge that Dodd received another sweetheart deal for a cottage in Ireland. Republicans gleefully put it all together on a video on the Web, spoofing Connecticut's senior senator.

(Soundbite of video)

Unidentified Man: It's St. Patrick's Day and no one feels luckier than Christopher Dodd. Did you know he…

NAYLOR: Dodd has been at pains to defend his record and regain his standing with Connecticut voters. He's made a point of returning to the state weekends, attending events to show his involvement in everything from health care to transit projects. After passage of the credit card bill in the Senate the other day, Dodd said he didn't want to talk about politics before he talked about politics.

Senator DODD: This today was a major effort on behalf of people of my state and across the country, and that's the best politics of all in my view, is working on their behalf. They don't want to see us get involved prematurely in a campaign, except a campaign to make a difference in their lives, and that's what today was all about.

NAYLOR: As Dodd himself noted, the good news for him in all of this is the election is some 18 months away. But he's already drawn two Republican challengers, including former Congressmen Rob Simmons, who polls show would beat Dodd if the election were held today. And now Dodd has another problem, a second Democrat who says he intends to take Dodd on in the Democratic primary.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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