WASHINGTON — The senior senator from South Carolina is late for an important committee vote.
Minutes pass. The whispering begins: Has anyone seen him? Will he come? And the unasked question behind all the others: Is this the moment when control of the Senate will, at last, change hands?
Then he arrives. He smiles at colleagues, touches an arm, pats a back. He may read a speech from notes. When the vote comes, he booms out his "yea" or "nay," before exiting on the arm of an aide.
Some 73 years after his first election to public office, Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) is used to questions about his age. But these days, scrutiny of the longest-serving senator's comings and goings has become a daily ritual.
More than idle curiosity, the Strom watch is driven by basic, raw politics. With a 50-50 split in the Senate, the GOP can't afford to lose a single seat. And should Senator Thurmond step down or need to be replaced, the choice of a successor would fall to South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges, a Democrat.
As a result, the White House is driving the president's priorities - first tax cuts and, this week, education - through the Senate as quickly as possible.
"Nothing motivates Washington like the prospect of losing one's power. And what's making a difference now are all those factors at the margin, such as the health of a senator," says Marshall Wittmann, a senior analyst at the Hudson Institute.
Thurmond's staff insists his health has not undermined his ability to carry out his duties. He has yet to miss a floor vote in the 107th Congress, and he shows up in his office every day, whether the Senate is in session or not. Aides say he still works out every morning, as he has for most of a century.
During past campaigns, the senator has flipped into a handstand, slid down a fire pole, and pumped iron to show the camera - and skeptics - that he's fit and up for the job.
These days, the man once celebrated for a bone-crushing handshake known as the "the Grip" is now better know for "the Hug" - a reference to the warm greeting he offered freshman Sen. Hillary Clinton (D) of New York at her swearing-in. (She asked him to autograph a photo of the hug, which he did: "To Pretty Hillary: Welcome to the Senate.)
Usually, Senate traditions give members a measure of respect and personal dignity that's hard to find elsewhere in public life.
In the past, ailing senators have failed to show up for months, even years, at a time. (A Virginia senator in the 1940s missed the last four years of his term, during which time he held the post of president pro tempore and chairman of the Appropriations Committee. A New York senator missed every session in the 80th and 81st congresses.)
Under ordinary circumstances, just being there is enough to buy a little distance from the press. But these are not ordinary times.
"It's unfortunate that the media continue to portray him as in failing health, especially because the only reason the media is interested is a 50-50 split, and the repercussions that could have," says spokeswoman Genevieve Erny.
Thurmond has already broken all records for service in the US Senate - 45 years, eight months, and counting. He is the only senator ever to have been elected on a write-in vote.
As president pro tempore of the Senate, Thurmond is also third in line for the presidency, after the vice president and Speaker of the House.
A political legend
You can't go far in South Carolina without finding a school, road, lake, or bridge with his name on it.
And his own memory for the names and faces of generations of constituents has been the stuff of legend. Analysts say it's this attention to detail in the lives of voters that has been the key to his political longevity.
"It's hard to find someone in South Carolina who hasn't been touched by Strom Thurmond," says Lee Bandy, chief political writer for The State, South Carolina's largest newspaper. "There's always been something more important than ideology for this man - and that's practical politics."
For the first half of his political career, Thurmond was an implacable foe of the civil rights movement. In 1948, he briefly left the Democratic Party over civil rights and challenged Harry Truman for the presidency as the nominee of the States Rights Democratic Party.
His 24-hour, 18-minute filibuster opposing the Civil Rights Act of 1957 is still the longest speech in the history of the Senate. He was "standing with the people" and states' rights, he said. After passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, he left the Democratic Party for good.
But the Voting Rights Act of 1965 changed that calculus, as blacks began to vote in record numbers.
By the 1970s, Thurmond had read the signs of the times and shifted course on race. He was the first Southern senator to break the color barrier in hiring staff, and he soon extended the ample resources of his Senate office to helping black constituents as well as whites.
An almost-teetotaler, Thurmond worked hard to get warning labels on alcoholic beverages. He fought for higher ethical standards in the Senate. And he developed a constituent service operation second to none. The senator gets hundreds of requests for help a day, including many from outside his state.
"As a survivor, I'd give him an A-plus, both politically and physically," says Robert Botsch, a professor of political science at the University of South Carolina at Aiken. "He knows how to make sure the state gets its fair share of things, and he knows how to change with the times."
Indeed, Thurmond's long-standing popularity in his home state could make choosing a successor a difficult task for Governor Hodges.
National commentators assume he would pick a Democrat, thus forcing a turnover of power in the Senate. But the governor isn't saying what he'd do.
(Official responses to Strom questions range from "The governor doesn't talk about filling vacancies when there are no vacancies to fill" to "Shoo, vultures, shoo!")
On the other side, Republicans who control the South Carolina legislature are looking for ways to safeguard the seat.
Last week, a House subcommittee approved a bill that would require the governor to fill US Senate vacancies by choosing a member of the same party. (Four other states have such a law.) Locals call it the Strom Thurmond bill.
"When voters of South Carolina went to the polls they elected a Democrat or a Republican. If [Thurmond's] seat were to be vacated, we want to preserve the integrity of their vote," says Rep. Chip Limehouse (R) of Charleston, a sponsor of the bill.
"We in South Carolina love him dearly," he adds. "He's the Rock of Gibraltar."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor