Washington — The contest to see who will succeed Robert Byrd as leader of the Senate's majority Democrats could be the most hotly contested political race of the year - but the least visible. The West Virginian announced Tuesday that he would step down after 12 years as his party's leader in the Senate, putting to rest months of gossip and speculation about his intentions. His decision has triggered a new round of gossip and speculation over who will succeed him.
Three of Senator Byrd's Democratic colleagues - Sens. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, J.Bennett Johnston Jr. of Louisiana, and George Mitchell of Maine - have told reporters of their intentions to vie for the spot. All have been quietly courting support for months in anticipation of Byrd's decision. All have strong bases of support among Senate Democrats, who will cast votes for a new leader shortly before the January convocation of the 101st Congress.
The candidates would bring distinctly different personal styles to the leadership, and style may determine victory. In recent years, Byrd has come under increasing criticism by fellow lawmakers who consider his old-fashioned image ill-suited to the demands of the television age. With gavel-to-gavel televised coverage of Senate proceedings, as well as the press attention that accrues top lawmakers, the Senate majority leader is, inevitably, a media star. Many Democratic senators are eager for their next leader to project what they consider a more progressive image of the Senate and the Democratic Party to the nation.
``What we'll be looking for in the leader is perhaps someone with less knowledge of the process, but hopefully able to do it differently,'' says Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) of New Jersey, in an oblique reference to Byrd's legendary skills as a parliamentary tactician. ``The time, I think, is appropriate for change.''
Senator Johnston has the allegiance of many Southerners and the support of reformers who, frustrated by Senate rules that allow a determined minority to thwart the will of the majority, would like to see Senate procedures streamlined.
Senator Inouye, one of the Senate's most respected members, is considered to be the candidate of continuity - already a member of the leadership, and a close ally of Byrd.
Senator Mitchell collected political IOUs as head of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee in 1986, when the party recaptured control of the Senate from the Republicans. A strong television presence, he is considered a likely victor in the event senators choose, as one put it, a ``more daring'' course.