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Life After Jesse Helms

When Americans go to the polls late next year to elect a new Congress, a familiar and controversial name will be off the ballot. Republican Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina will step down after a career that will have spanned three decades.

"I would be 88 if I ran again in 2002 and was elected and lived to finish a sixth term," said Senator Helms. "And this, my family and I have decided unanimously that I should not do and ladies and gentlemen, I shall not."

With that, the conservative icon announced his retirement and touched off a heated scramble among a pack of would-be successors. Much of the attention is focused on Republican Elizabeth Dole, a former secretary of Labor and Transportation and a native of North Carolina. Her husband, retired senator Bob Dole, told an interviewer he is "almost ready" to say she will run for the Senate."I think it's been indicated she's going to change her registration in a couple of days, a few days, whatever, which would indicate she's seriously looking at it. She'll change her voter registration," he said.

Mrs. Dole has now done just that. She moved her registration from her husband's hometown in Kansas to her own hometown in North Carolina, in a first step toward a possible campaign. But if she runs she may face a crowd of competitors. A former mayor of the state's largest city, Richard Vinroot, is already seeking the nomination. Congressman Richard Burr is another potential Republican candidate.

Mrs. Dole's rivals are likely to emphasize that while she grew up in North Carolina, she has not lived there in years. Her 2000 presidential bid never caught fire and ended even before any primary votes were cast. Still, many Republicans in North Carolina and Washington feel she is the party's best hope for retaining the seat. University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato agrees. "Only if Mrs. Dole is the candidate will the Republicans have the upper hand," he said. "Otherwise that seat will be a complete toss-up. And in fact the Democrats will be favored if the Republicans renominate defeated Senator Lauch Faircloth."

Mr. Faircloth, who served one term in the Senate and may be even more conservative than Mr. Helms, says he may run again. On the Democratic side, North Carolina's Secretary of State, Elaine Marshall, is so far the only person in the race, though others may jump in.

Mr. Helms' departure adds a new dimension to what was already shaping up as a bruising election-year fight for control of the Senate. Democrats hope to add to their one-seat majority, while Republicans promise an all-out effort to retake power.

Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg says Mr. Helms' retirement might actually help the Republicans' prospects because his age and health problems would have made campaigning difficult. But at least at this early stage, Mr. Rothenberg says the odds tend to favor the Democrats. "If I had to pick a number I'd think there's probably going to be very little change in the Senate and since the Democrats control the Senate right now they have a slight edge for controlling in the next Congress," he said.

No matter who wins Mr. Helms' seat, his conservative voice will be absent, especially on international affairs. Mr. Helms was perhaps the most influential person in Congress on foreign policy during the years he chaired the Foreign Relations Committee. But he lost that post when Democrats gained their majority. And even if Republicans regain control of the Senate, the next Foreign Relations chairman would almost certainly be more moderate than Jesse Helms.