A NEW POLL and a number of Republican insiders suggest that Tom Ridge is leaning toward a run for the U.S. Senate.

I'm not sure it's a good idea.

The former Erie congressman, two-term governor and U.S. secretary of homeland security (you remember the color code, right?) could face conservative Pat Toomey in a primary and Arlen Specter next fall.

If so, asks one insider, "Is there a burning desire in Pennsylvania to replace a moderate with a moderate?"

Could be.

Data released yesterday by respected national pollster Neil Newhouse, of Public Opinion Strategies, says that Ridge wins both races (by 37 percentage points over Toomey; by 7 over Specter) if the race were held today.

But the primary's a year away, the general a year-and-a-half.

And Ridge jumping in is reminiscent of former governor and U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh in the 1991 special Senate race after the death of incumbent Republican H. John Heinz.

The GOP needed a name to hold a Senate seat in danger, just like now.

But Democrat Harris Wofford wanted to be a senator. Thornburgh never did. And it showed during that campaign.

Ridge never longed to be senator. (Specter would peel off his own skin to stay in the Senate.) After more than a decade in the minority in the U.S. House, does Ridge pine to be a minority-party senator?

And that's if he wins.

He has to beat Toomey, whose campaign yesterday announced that in the 20 days since he said that he's running, he has raised more than $500,000 from more than 4,000 contributors.

Toomey ran a tenacious, nearly successful campaign against Specter in the '04 primary and strikes me as someone who won't back down.

Since the GOP vote is more conservative now than then (there's already anti-Ridge stuff flying around about his support of welfare expansion and publicly funded abortions), some suggest that Toomey/Ridge could be a race.

The argument for a Ridge run is that he can become the national face of a new Republican Party.

But it's the same party that twice rejected him as a possible vice-presidential candidate, a party showing no substantive signs it seeks to realign.

Plus, Ridge, now living in Chevy Chase, Md. (he maintains an Erie residence), makes boatloads of money heading his own international-security firm and serving on national corporate boards.

Will he do it?

Longtime Ridge pal and fundraiser David Girard-diCarlo says: "He is taking it very seriously. It is a deeply personal decision. And I believe he realizes time is of the essence in making the decision."

National Republican Committeeman Bob Asher, who commissioned the new poll, says, "If anybody tells you they know what he's going to do, they're fibbing."

If Ridge is in, the question will be why.

I can't imagine that a majority of Pennsylvania voters care much about rebuilding the GOP. So, Ridge, I assume, runs on grounds that the two-party system is essential to democracy and that basically he's a nicer guy than Specter.

But Pittsburgh political analyst William J. Green says that a Ridge/Specter race sets the stage for Ridge losing conservative GOP votes.

"Two pro-choice moderates means a third-party pro-life candidate gets in, maybe Peg Luksik as an independent, and that can shave votes from the Republican," Green says.

(When Ridge was elected governor in 1994, beating Democrat Mark Singel by 4 percentage points, Luksik got 13 percent of the vote.)

And, finally, anyone running against Specter in a general election faces months of political waterboarding. As one close observer put it, "If there's a nuclear holocaust, cockroaches and Arlen survive."

I think it was a compliment. *

Send e-mail to baerj@phillynews.com.

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