Most people only expected hardball efforts to get party switchers in the Senate if it wound up closely divided, either 50-50 or 51/49 in either direction.  However, Fox reports today that Senate Republicans have greeted special-election victor Joe Manchin (D-WV) with a big push to get him into the GOP caucus.  And they may well have found a way to convince him to join the minority:

Republicans are making some big promises to try to lure West Virginia Senator-elect Joe Manchin to cross the aisle.

Aside from his pick of committee assignments (likely the Energy and Natural Resources Committee), Manchin might get support for one of his pet projects – a plant to convert coal to diesel fuel that has stalled under Democratic leadership in Washington.

It’s one of Manchin’s pet projects and could mean big money for the state’s coal producers.

“Republicans believe in an ‘all of the above’ approach to energy,” one top Senate aide told Power Play. “And coal-to-diesel could certainly be part of that.”

Manchin’s switch could mean Republican support for not just $1 billion in seed money for the project but also a deal, much sought in coal country, to require the armed forces to use converted coal for fuel.

Republicans believe Manchin is particularly susceptible to the overture because he is up for reelection in 2012 and will have to be on the ticket with President Obama, who is direly unpopular in West Virginia. Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Independent Joe Lieberman are the other two prime targets of Republican advances.

The response from Manchin’s team won’t make Democrats feel very secure.  Essentially, they don’t commit to much of anything except “to try in good faith to make changes” to the Democratic Party from within, since they just got him elected to fill Robert Byrd’s remaining term.   The message is that either Democrats have to change direction in the Senate or Manchin might take some of this wooing seriously.

Will he jump?  If he did and Nelson comes with him to protect his own prospects in 2012 — which were seriously damaged by his acquiescence on ObamaCare — then that would leave Republicans with only 49 seats.   They would need to get someone else to jump, like perhaps Mark Pryor, who watched his colleague Blanche Lincoln get slaughtered in the midterms last week, to get to 50.  Fox focuses on Joe Lieberman, but he has less reason to switch now than before.  Not only is the Iraq War no longer a big concern, but Lieberman just watched a self-funding Republican in Connecticut lose big to a Democratic establishment candidate in the middle of a Republican teanami.   Lieberman wouldn’t stand a chance of getting re-elected as a Republican in 2012, nor is he a fan of Tea Party political positions anyway.

Even getting to 50 won’t mean control of the agenda.  Joe Biden will cast the deciding vote on leadership positions, which means Harry Reid will still control the Senate, although committee assignments will become more equitable, according to tradition.  Manchin will have to spend two years in the minority and then hope his personal approval ratings remain high enough to prevail against another Democrat in 2012.

Manchin’s team promises to consider the options if Democrats refuse to change directions.  I’ll go out on a limb and guess that Manchin will give them about 18 months to prove themselves one way or another, and then align himself with the party that promises him the brightest future when the 2012 election nears.