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The Most Vulnerable Senator Up for Re-Election in 2010?

Move over, Jim Bunning. You have company.

Veteran Sen. Chris Dodd (D) should not be vulnerable in his home state of Connecticut. As a longtime officeholder in a reliably Democratic state and the chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, Dodd should have the stature, political base and access to resources to dissuade even the most ambitious of Republicans from challenging him for re-election.

But the darkening cloud that is growing over the Senator’s head has changed Dodd’s prospects quickly, and the signs already are clear that he’ll have the fight of his life next year when he seeks his sixth consecutive term in the Senate.

Coverage of Dodd’s special treatment from lender Countrywide Financial — and his designation as a “friend of Angelo” — has blanketed local media, severely damaging Dodd’s standing in a state where Democrats hold better than 2-1 majorities in both chambers of the state Legislature, hold all of the Congressional seats and haven’t lost a U.S. Senate race since 1986.

Only one Republican, Lowell Weicker, has won a Senate race in the Constitution State since Prescott Bush did so in 1956. (Bush defeated Democrat Thomas Dodd, the current Senator’s father.)

Chris Dodd has had no serious tests since he coasted to victory in an open-seat House race in the very Democratic year of 1974. Dodd’s closest race since then was his first bid for Senate, in 1980, which he won by “only” 13 points over former New York Sen. Jim Buckley (R). Buckley had lost re-election in the Empire State in 1976 and figured that he might as well run for the Senate in neighboring Connecticut.

But this cycle is shaping up very differently. A March 26-28 Quinnipiac University poll of registered voters showed Dodd with a 30 percent favorable/58 percent unfavorable rating and his job approval at 33 percent approve/58 percent disapprove. Four in 10 Democrats disapproved of his job performance.

More troubling, he was 16 points behind Republican opponent Rob Simmons, a well-regarded former Member from eastern Connecticut who was overwhelmed in the Democratic wave of 2006. Dodd was losing independents by more than 2-1, and Simmons was winning more than 1 in 4 Democrats.

The poll also showed Dodd trailing Waterbury state Sen. Sam Caligiuri, who recently entered the race, and former Ambassador to Ireland Tom Foley, who is considering his options. Caligiuri held a 4-point lead over Dodd even though 88 percent of those responding hadn’t heard enough about the state lawmaker to have an opinion of him.

Dodd’s position now is an excellent example of how quickly things can change. Until the Countrywide Financial story broke last summer, Dodd’s chairmanship looked like a political asset. But now it is a double-edged sword, causing more light to be shined on him and his dealings with the financial community and exposing him to criticism that creates electoral problems for him back home.

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