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Early glance: Will Republicans win the U.S. Senate?

Even as the presidency tops the electoral agenda, a serious battle is emerging for control of the U.S. Senate — with survival of the Democrats’ currently close majority far from guaranteed.

This may be less than obvious to those who focus on New York, where Republican Senate candidate Wendy Long this year is widely believed to face very long odds against Democratic incumbent Kirsten Gillibrand. Elsewhere, more competitive clashes are brewing between the forces of Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Democrats hold 51 seats, and Republicans 47, with two independents currently caucusing as Democrats. Of 33 Senate seats up for election this fall, 23 are in Democratic hands at the moment — which on one level means the Republicans get to play offense, seeking to flip more seats amid a hard economy.

And, seven Democratic-caucus incumbents aren’t seeking re-election, putting their seats in varying degrees of reach for the GOP. Sen. Jim Webb’s coming departure in Virginia lets loose high-profile contest as does Sen. Herb Kohl’s retirement in Wisconsin. Sen. Joe Lieberman’s coming retirement in Connecticut removes him from the Democratic caucus. Same goes for Democrats Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico and Daniel Akaka of Hawaii.

Among Senate Democrats seeking re-election, Bill Nelson of Florida may face a tough challenge, for example, most likely from GOP Rep. Connie Mack IV, who knocks Nelson’s “lockstep” loyalty to President Barack Obama. But Democrats are of course seeking to flip Republican seats too. “Anyone who looks at this fairly would still see it as likely we’ll keep the Senate,” argued a New York Democratic operative, who preferred not to be identified.

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