In Senate, an expanding void of Southern Republicans

Phil Gramm joins Helms on the list of outgoing conservatives.

After retaking the South in the 1980s, Republicans are suddenly facing problems in what has been their strongest region of the country.

Sen. Phil Gramm's announcement that he would not seek reelection in 2002, which was expected yesterday afternoon, raises the stakes for Republicans hoping to win back the Senate. The Texan's move follows on the heels of the retirement of an icon of Southern conservatism, Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina.

And these exits could be only the beginning. Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina - the longest serving US senator in history - is not seeking reelection.

Both Sens. Fred Thompson (R) of Tennessee and Pete Domenici

(R) of New Mexico may also step down next year, analysts say.

While none of these seats would necessarily be an easy win for the Democrats, their vacancy would force Republicans to put more resources into holding them. Moreover, their departures would mark a significant loss of Republican seniority in the Senate.

"It's good news for the Democrats," says Thomas Mann, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "It's not that Republicans won't be favored to hold the seat, but there aren't any obvious successors to Gramm."

Mr. Gramm was the GOP's most prominent fiscal conservative. A former Democrat, he was kicked off the Budget Committee in 1983, after supporting the Reagan budget cuts. He turned the rebuff into triumph, after running successfully for reelection as a Republican.

But with the changeover of power in the Senate, he finds himself without a gavel and increasingly on the margins of his own party on signature issues like fiscal discipline and paying down the debt. With Gramm gone, the leading spokesmen for fiscal restraint in the Senate are all Democrats.

The exit of prominent southerners also opens the door for a new style of leadership in the Republican Party. The departure of Gramm and Helms and perhaps Thurmond "will make a lot of difference after the 2002 elections," says Marshall Wittmann, a congressional expert at the Hudson Institute. "It will make room for a new leadership class in the Republican Party - one that's characterized by Sen. Bill Frist of (R) Tennessee."

"These politicians are more telegenic," he says. "They don't have sharp elbows. And they speak in centrist tones."

Still, even with the vacancies, the Democrats will find it difficult to pick up new seats. The retirement of Gramm, Helms, even Thurmond "likely won't change the calculus of the Senate," says Charles Cook, editor of the Cook Political Report. "If Republicans had to pick three states to have open seats in, they'd be hard pressed to pick three better ones."

At the moment, Gramm's exit leaves the GOP to defend 21 Senate seats next year. Democrats are defending 14, none of them open.

Gramm is a close ally of Senate minority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi and an influential voice within the Senate's GOP leadership. Last winter, he introduced a tax cut patterned on Bush's campaign proposals even before the new chief executive could send his own blueprint to Congress.

At the same time, he has been a critic of government spending. Last year, he and a few fellow conservatives held up work on a GOP budget blueprint, saying it overspent.

Despite persistent rumors, senior officials at the White House in the Senate and within the Republican Party were caught off-guard yesterday by news of Gramm's decision.

Republicans are confident of retaining Gramm's seat in the 2002 midterm election. The seat had formerly been held by Republican John Tower, and George Bush, the former Texas governor, won the state handily in the 2000 presidential contest.

Whoever wins the seat may bring a different look to the Senate. Among those cited as possible candidates next year: US Rep. Henry Bonilla (R), former Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros (D), former Texas Attorney General Dan Morales (D) - all Hispanic - and Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, who is black.

The race "will be more competitive than otherwise expected," says Bruce Buchanan, political scientist at the University of Texas.

Abraham McLaughlin, Dante Chinni, and Kris Axtman contributed to this report.

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