WASHINGTON -- The tables were loaded with untouched platters of food as Sen. Elizabeth Dole rose last week to introduce her party's Senate candidate from Nebraska. Sixty people were supposed to be at the fundraiser, but Dole, the host and leader of the Republican effort to hold the Senate this fall, found just 18 people scattered across a vast expanse of empty carpet.
Dole has been a nearly unstoppable star for 25 years: a Cabinet secretary, the head of the Red Cross and a popular senator from North Carolina, never mind the wife of Bob Dole, the former Senate majority leader and Republican presidential nominee.
But going into the most competitive congressional election in 12 years, some Republicans say Dole is faltering in her latest job, as head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which raises money, recruits candidates, plots strategy and shapes the party's message.
She has been lapped in fundraising by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. The latest filing, on Thursday, showed Democrats with $37.7 million on hand, compared with $19.9 million for Republicans. If Senate Republicans are unable to close the gap, it will force the Republican National Committee to step in with financial support in tight Senate races - it had $45 million on hand as of Thursday - creating tensions with House Republicans who want that money used to help them.
For all her star power, Dole, who turns 70 on Saturday, has not had much of a public profile this year, leaving her party at a disadvantage in parrying attacks from her assertive Democratic counterpart, Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York.
She failed to find strong candidates to run against vulnerable Senate Democrats in at least four states, a shortcoming that could also be partly attributed to the White House, which has often played a crucial role in candidate recruitment.
However the blame is apportioned, the party has been left without a high-profile candidate who can take advantage of the few opportunities open to Republicans this year, such as in Connecticut, where Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, the Democrat, has been distracted by a challenge from the left and said he would run as an independent if he lost the primary.
Dole also could not head off a brutal primary battle in Rhode Island over the seat held by Lincoln Chafee, who is being challenged from the right.
In interviews, Republican senators voiced support for Dole but made it clear they were nervous about the months ahead.
"I'm going to say it's going well, because at this point in time, that's what you need to say," said Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, who this year publicly criticized Dole's recruiting efforts.
Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, who has made known that he wants to succeed Dole when she finishes her term at the end of the year, said senators pressed Dole about the committee's financial situation at a lunch she held for them Tuesday.
Other Republicans had harsher views.
"Look, we have a lot of Republicans who are on the ropes. This has not been a spectacular year of recruiting. We are way behind in fundraising," said Pat Toomey, the president of the Club for Growth, a conservative political action committee. "I don't see a lot to brag about."
For Democrats to take control of the Senate, they will have to win six seats, a tough task with only seven or eight in play. If the Republicans still have a majority after the election, much of the criticism of Dole is likely to be forgotten.
In an interview in her office in the National Republican Senatorial Committee headquarters on Capitol Hill, Dole defended her fundraising efforts. She said she was pleased with her success at recruiting candidates to challenge Democrats in what are generally viewed as longer-shot states for her party: Washington, Michigan, Maryland and New Jersey.
"You know it ain't going to be easy," said Dole. "We are up against a head wind. But I cannot tell you how delighted I am with the sterling quality of the candidates."
With a laugh, Dole brushed off comparisons with Schumer, suggesting he is more concerned with advancing his career, while her concern is about shepherding Republicans through a difficult period.
"I didn't take this job to prove anything," she said. "I've been around this town for 40 years."
Dole's friends and some senators said that she had what was perhaps the misfortune of having won the leadership of the campaign committee in a year when the climate had turned increasingly sour for Republicans.
"The problems the Republican Party faces are not of Ms. Dole's making," said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. "They're political trends that have been a long time in the making. She's upheld her end of the bargain."