By Richard Sammon, Senior Associate Editor August 6, 2009 As President Obama slips in the polls and more Americans express doubts about Democrats' handling of the economy and health care, Republicans are showing new signs of hope as they look to the 2010 elections. They are desperate to make gains in the Senate because even a couple of pick-ups would give them important leverage in the Democratic Congress in the two year run-up to the next presidential election.The Democratic majority in the Senate is an impressive 60, including two independents who caucus with Democrats. That's enough to stop Republican filibusters if Democrats can stick together, but that's already looking to be a challenge on health care, energy and climate change and immigration, among other prime topics where internal party divisions have spread. Republicans have 40 seats, but are far more united. If Democrats can gain a couple seats, they'll have a little more room to maneuver at will. Republicans won't be able to retake the majority in the Senate, try as they will. That's simply out of reach. Their best bet is to hold on to their own, including four seats that are vulnerable, and snare one or two seats from the Democrats, enough to claim some newfound momentum. While every race is different, look for Republicans to run a national campaign theme next year warning that any more Democrats will pave the way for liberal, big government legislation and tax increases. Each party will be defending 18 seats in 2010, but only seven or eight races will end up being highly competitive. Advertisement Making it challenging for Republicans is that three veteran members of their caucus are retiring from states - Missouri, Ohio and New Hampshire - that are not solid Republican red states. All three will be tough, hard fights that have to be rated as toss-ups for now. The fourth Republican weak spot is Kentucky, usually a safe Republican state. The recently announced retirement of Sen. Jim Bunning, R, who could not raise enough early money to manage a viable campaign, actually helps the GOP because Bunning seemed likely to lose, but it will still be a tough fight. Either Lt. Gov. Don Mongiardo or State Attorney Gen. Jack Conway will make a strong Democratic candidate and the Democratic National Committee will spend heavily there in hopes of a pickup. North Carolina, which has often been safe Republican territory, could also pose trouble for incumbent Republican Sen. Richard Burr. The state leans Republican but not so much that it is out of reach for Democrats. President Obama narrowly won it last year, and former Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R, was defeated. Democratic Secretary of State Elaine Marshall is leaning toward running against Burr. The Democrats' largest vulnerabilities will be in Illinois, where appointed Sen. Roland Burris, D, is retiring and where Rep. Mark Kirk, R, is a good bet to get the GOP nod, and in Connecticut, where Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd, D, faces the toughest campaign of his life. His popularity has plummeted, in part because of his long ties to the financial industry and Wall St. kingpins, and he faces a strong challenge, probably by former Rep. Rob Simmons, R. Advertisement One potentially vulnerable Democrat is Sen. Byron Dorgan, ND. He has cruised to victory in the past and has done loads of constituent service in his small-population state. Republicans are strongly courting three-term Gov. John Hoeven, R, to challenge Dorgan. If he agrees, Hoeven would make the race on of the hottest in 2010. Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada has a history of very close races, but he looks to have warded off a serious Republican challenge by raising millions. He also can claim important political credit for halting years of effort in Washington to establish a nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain. Democrats will most likely hold onto Pennsylvania, although it is unclear if Sen. Arlen Specter, who switched parties to run as a Democrat, will be able to fend off what looks to be a stiff primary challenge from Rep. Joe Sestak. Sestak will appeal to many Democrats who have long voted against Specter when he was a Republican.