Scramble to succeed two titans

Departure of Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond hastens a new politics in South.

As the Republican Party prepares to lose two conservative icons from neighboring Southern states - Sens. Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina - the races to replace them could not be more different.

In South Carolina, Rep. Lindsey Graham, a conservative and logical successor to Senator Thurmond, is on track for what looks to be a fairly easy victory.

In North Carolina, the picture is far less clear - and far more crowded. A number of Republicans from various political backgrounds, including former cabinet secretary Elizabeth Dole, have expressed interest in the race, which could make for a bitter primary battle. Potential Democratic opponents could just as easily capture the seat.

Taken together, the two races reflect the somewhat uncertain hold of conservatism in the South. Both states still tilt to the right, voting for George W. Bush and for conservative congressional candidates like Congressman Graham, who played a prominent role in the impeachment proceedings against former President Clinton.

Yet, the homes of Thurmond and Senator Helms are not exactly conservative strongholds. Both states have Democratic governors, Democratic junior senators, and increasingly moderate electorates. Although many of the high-tech, professional workers that have migrated to North Carolina are Republicans, for example, they are far more moderate than longtime residents, who represent Helms's core constituency.

Moreover, the sizeable black population in both states makes it difficult for far-right candidates to draw the kind of broad support needed to win statewide office. Without the black vote, a candidate in North Carolina needs more than three-fifths of the white vote to win - a virtual landslide. A strong conservative, like Graham in South Carolina, could achieve this. But in general, more moderate candidates, like Mrs. Dole or even Democrats, may have the advantage.

"In the case of South Carolina, I think you'll probably see a pretty smooth transition - a new-generation, younger conservative emerging to take the place of Senator Thurmond," says Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. "But in North Carolina, it's not clear at all what the outcome will be. This is a seat that could well go to the Democrats."

The styles of Helms and Thurmond themselves may partly account for the difference between the North and South Carolina races.

Helms refused to moderate his conservative views and had famously difficult battles, at times barely winning reelection. Indeed, he had such a polarizing effect on voters that he drove some moderate Republicans into the arms of his opponents.

In contrast, Thurmond softened his positions over the years, even voting for the 1982 Voting Rights Act, and won landslide victories - leaving a broad constituency for his successor to tap.

Timing may also play a part in Graham's dominance. Unlike Helms's retirement, which was announced Wednesday, Thurmond made it clear during his last campaign that he would not seek reelection, and Graham has been quietly building support for some time. His opposition to Clinton has helped give him valuable name recognition, as well as a strong fundraising base.

making his exit: Strom Thurmond, the oldest member of the Senate, has said he won't seek reelection next year. He leaves his successor a broad constituency.
andy nelson - staff/file

"Congressman Graham has gone across the state, been doing everything you need to do, especially at this early stage in the campaign - doing the chicken dinners, doing the barbeques, meeting with communities, really working with the party at the grass-roots level," says Dan Allen, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

More important, Graham's individual strength has helped clear the field. In addition to his solid conservative credentials, he has an independent streak, which has allowed him to appeal to both Thurmond's core constituents and many more-moderate voters. Several potential Democratic opponents have declined to run against him.

Helms may have made things harder for his successor by leaving behind a fractured party. Although the most direct ideological successor to Helms might be Rep. Robin Hayes, a strong conservative, observers say a more moderate candidate like Dole has a better chance of winning back the state's anti-Helms Republicans.

"North Carolina is becoming more and more liberal, and the list of candidates that the Republican Party is trying to run for Jesse Helms's seat looks more like a list of conservative Democrats," says Jerry Baxley, chairman of the Southern Party in Chesterfield, Va.

Dole, who has yet to announce her candidacy, is already considered by many to be the frontrunner, even though she has not lived in the state for some 30 years.

Yet Dole has never actually won elected office before, points out Professor Black. Other than her brief and unsuccessful run for president in 2000, she has no campaign track record to build on. "It's one thing to have name recognition; it's another thing to actually go out and run a political campaign," he says.

On the Democratic side, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall has announced she is running for the seat, and could pose a formidable challenge. Ms. Marshall proved her campaign mettle when she beat race car driver and local hero Richard Petty in 1996.

The possibility of two female candidates meeting in the general election presents an intriguing dynamic, as women are traditionally a swing vote - as well as an ironic follow-up to Helms, who was hardly a proponent of women's rights.

Patrik Jonsson in North Car- olina contributed to this report.

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