updated 10/15/2008 10:20:41 AM ET 2008-10-15T14:20:41

Sen. Al Franken? Seriously! Ba dum bum. By now, we all know the tale of the onetime comedian whose Senate campaign, once a late-night punch line, looks increasingly like a winner. But here's something even more funny/serious/fascinating/all of the above: Sen. Jim Martin. Sen. Kay Hagan. Or, how about this one: Sen. Bruce Lunsford!

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Over the past week, a wave of momentum has swept across a slew of second-tier Senate races, lifting Democratic long shots, most of them in the Deep South, who are challenging Republican big shots. Laugh if you will, but those long shots could provide their party with the nine-seat gain they need to reach the big 6-0.

Who are these masked crusaders?

They hail, for one thing, from a different political class than the existing top tier of Democrats, which consists of two former governors (Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Mark Warner of Virginia), two longtime congressmen from an established political family (Tom Udall of New Mexico and Mark Udall of Colorado) and a mayor of his state's largest city (Mark Begich of Alaska).

In Georgia, for example, Sen. Saxby Chambliss suddenly faces a real threat from Martin, a cerebral attorney who racked up a liberal voting record over 26 years in the state legislature and has all the personal flair that his name would imply. And yet, before Democrats had even made a serious investment, recent polls said Martin had pulled even with Chambliss.

Chambliss last week became the first Senate incumbent to run a TV ad defending his support for the $700 billion bailout bill. Martin calls that vote "just wrong" and this week launched his own TV ad with this tagline: "Saxby Economics: At the root of the problem." Of course, six years ago, Chambliss won an upset victory of his own with an attack ad citing unpopular votes by then-Sen. Max Cleland against creating the Department of Homeland Security to suggest that Cleland, who had lost three of his limbs in the Vietnam War, was soft on terror. Surely, Cleland is watching this race, and laughing. Decision '08But the real threat for vulnerable Republicans isn't the bailout bill. It's the other "B" word: Bush. On Tuesday, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution backed Martin with an endorsement that read more like criticism of Chambliss, who editors said "has built a reputation as a loyal defender of President Bush and his policies." Even in Georgia these days, those are fighting words.

Meanwhile, in North Carolina, life has grown so dire for Sen. Elizabeth Dole that she recently was forced to open her own wallet to defend herself against attacks from Democrat Kay Hagan and her Senate allies. "There just comes a point when you feel like you need to put some skin in the game," Dole explained last weekend.

Dole's "skin" notwithstanding, her comment rekindled fond memories of her 2000 presidential bid, when her husband, Bob, threatened to write a check to her then-rival, his old friend John McCain. Hopefully Bob Dole hasn't put too deep a dent in their personal campaign kitty this year.

Speaking of self-funders, Democrats might even get lucky in Kentucky, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a highly skilled strategist, faces a tougher-than-expected race against perennial wannabe Bruce Lunsford, a wealthy health care executive who plunked down $8 million of his own money into two losing campaigns for governor this decade and is on track to surpass that sum in 2008 alone. Democrats are counting on the self-financing millionaire to pull a reverse John Thune on Republicans, riding a national wave to defeat their party's Senate leader.

On the stump, Lunsford is wooden (one Lexington newspaper columnist calls him "Clunksford"). Nonetheless, this race is also now a dead heat.

Even in Mississippi, where Democrats haven't won a Senate seat in a quarter-century, Republicans are nervous. Sen. Roger Wicker will probably prevail, but voters can be forgiven if they confuse Wicker with his Democratic rival, Ronnie Musgrove. The two 50-something, bespectacled, white-haired politicians could easily be mistaken for identical twins.

But fear not, Republicans. All is not doom and gloom for your Senate candidates, or for John McCain. There's still one Republican out there hoping to take advantage of the McCain Mania surging like wildfire across his state. During a televised debate last weekend in Baton Rouge, Republican challenger John Kennedy repeatedly tried to tie Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu to Barack Obamaand played up his own ties to McCain.

"I know you are trying very hard," Landrieu shot back, her voice dripping with "bless your heart" condescension. "But Senator McCain's coattails are not long enough for you."

"McCain's coattails"? OK, now that's funny.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.


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