A GOP Senate Is Slip-Sliding Away: Countdown Day 40

FILE - In this Jan. 18, 2008, file photo, former Surgeon General Richard Carmona speaks during a news conference in Austin, T
FILE - In this Jan. 18, 2008, file photo, former Surgeon General Richard Carmona speaks during a news conference in Austin, Texas. Old political battles are resurfacing for former Carmona as he seeks to become Arizona’s next U.S. senator _ as a Democrat, not as a Republican. Carmona served four years as surgeon general under Republican President George W. Bush. (AP Photo/Harry Cabluck, file)

WASHINGTON -- You couldn't make up the impressive biography of Richard Carmona of Tucson, Ariz. Hollywood would never buy it. But Carmona is real -- and one reason why Republicans are losing what once looked like a good shot at retaking the U.S. Senate.

Carmona is a 62-year-old former Army officer of Puerto Rican descent, trauma doctor, SWAT team leader and U.S. surgeon general appointed by President George W. Bush. He was a political independent until a year ago, when he became a Democrat to compete for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Jon Kyl.

The seat was once thought to be a gimme for Kyl's GOP heir apparent, Rep. Jeff Flake, a Mormon and anti-government conservative from rural Arizona.

For that matter, the state was considered a gimme for GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, a Mormon and (newborn) anti-government conservative from Michigan, Massachusetts, Utah and California.

Now the Carmona-Flake race is considered a tossup, and President Barack Obama, though still behind, is slowly but noticeably gaining ground.

Carmona, who rose from a childhood of poverty and rough circumstances in New York City, has ads with footage of him rappelling from a helicopter to rescue a trauma victim, displaying his spiffy surgeon general's uniform, winning a "top cop" award and brandishing his SWAT team badge, plus testimony from fellow Vietnam combat vets.

As a Hispanic, he has also been able to appeal to the state's large Mexican community -- not always easy for non-Mexican Latinos.

Flake's severe brand of conservatism, with its emphasis on slashing budgets and traditional family values, plays well in the old Arizona that once elected Sen. Barry Goldwater, but not necessarily in the new one of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and, depending on his mood, Sen. John McCain.

The changing numbers in Arizona look good on the larger Senate tote board, where the trend is clearly in the Democrats' favor. "At least for now, all the news in every race is moving in our direction," said Matt Canter, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

As if to prove the point, the Karl Rove-founded American Crossroads just dumped $46.4 million into six Senate races (not including Arizona), at least one of which, Indiana, was originally thought to be safe for the GOP.

The Democrats narrowly control the Senate today, by a 51-47 margin, with two independents who vote with the Democrats for a working (or rather, filibuster-neutered) total of 53-47. Republicans had earlier talked big of winning a net of at least three seats. With a GOP presidential victory (and a tie-breaking vice presidential vote), that would give them control in 2013.

But the consensus estimate now is that the Democrats will emerge on election night with a 52-48 majority, not nearly enough to break the 60-vote grip of the filibuster, but enough to keep the chairmanships, command of the floor and control of other key Senate business.

What has happened to diminish Republican expectations?

For one, by common agreement, the Democrats recruited better candidates. Even Rove has admitted as much. And the Democrats, running scared, have tailored their own defenses in what they initially worried could be a wipeout kind of year.

"Individual candidates matter, and individual campaigns matter," said Canter.

The anti-government fervor of 2010, which the Tea Party generated and rode to power, is still out there, especially in the red states, but Democrats have had time to devise their counterattacks, state by state.

In Arizona, for example, Carmona is stressing his background as a disabled Vietnam veteran and doctor to attack the budget-cutting Flake as a threat to Veterans Affairs hospitals and veterans' health care in general. Arizona's population is heavy with military retirees.

It also turns out that super PACs may not be very good at getting the bang for their many bucks, because they're not tailoring their ads to the narrow issues in each state.

"In every state, it is the same," said Canter, ticking off the key words: Obama, liberal, bailout, Obamacare, $700 billion cut from Medicare. "I'm not saying that those aren't powerful themes. They are. But each Senate race is unique, and you have to be specific."

In Arizona, Carmona has yet to face the full Rove carpet-bombing. But don't be surprised to hear it start at any moment.

For Howard Fineman's full 2012 Countdown, click here.