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US Congress To Lose Leading Conservative Voice To Retirement - 2001-08-22

With the possible exception of Bill and Hillary Clinton, few American politicians inspire the same devotion from supporters and hatred from opponents as Jesse Helms. The conservative Republican senator has now told constituents he will not seek another term and will step down in 2003 after 30 years in office.

The North Carolina senator says advancing age makes retirement his only choice. He delivered the message in a brief statement on the same television station where he was once a commentator. "I would be 88 if I ran again in 2002 and was elected and lived to finish a sixth term. And this, my family and I have decided unanimously that I should not do and ladies and gentlemen, I shall not."

Nearing his 80th birthday and hobbled by health problems, Mr. Helms was facing a re-election campaign that could have been hard both physically and politically. He had already lost the chairmanship of the Foreign Relations Committee when Democrats took control of the Senate. However, he vows to remain active on matters like missile defense in the final months of his term.

"But the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will consider, among other important matters, significant legislation that will set the course for the future of America's defense system," he said.

Mr. Helms' impact on foreign policy dates back to the 1970s when he fought the Panama Canal treaty. After taking over the Foreign Relations panel in 1995, he became perhaps the most powerful person in Congress on international affairs.

The senator tirelessly attacked the government of China, played a key role in killing the nuclear test ban, and co-authored the Helms-Burton law, which toughened the economic blockade of Cuba. This year he came back with another bill aimed at helping President Castro's opponents.

"If courageous Cuban dissidents choose to stand up for their God-given rights, and look to us for moral or material support, Mr. [Senate] President, certainly we should not turn our backs on them. And let Castro do his worst. Let us do our best," he said in a Senate speech.

Mr. Helms lately softened his stand on a few issues. He agreed to pay some of Washington's U.N. dues and supported debt relief for developing nations. Even while opposing President Clinton's policies he enjoyed a friendly relationship with then-Secretary of State Madeline Albright.

But the chairman's courtly manner sometimes gave way to harsh, caustic rhetoric, words that led critics to label him a right-wing extremist. Political analyst Larry Sabato calls him one of the two or three most principled senators but one who clung to old-fashioned views on issues like women's rights, homosexual rights and race.

"Senator Helms was a very principled conservative. But he also retained some aspects of the old conservatism that are very much outdated," he said.

Analysts say Mr. Helms' departure could make it harder for Republicans to retake control of the Senate. One who may run for his seat next year is Elizabeth Dole, a North Carolina native, former Cabinet secretary and one of the most prominent women in the Republican Party. University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock says name recognition gives Mrs. Dole the early advantage.

"I think right now she would be the frontrunner but it's going to be almost another year before the North Carolina primaries [nominating elections] take place. And if indeed one or more members of, say the [state] congressional delegation were to jump into that contest then she will really have to show her mettle as a candidate," he said.

Former Senator Lauch Faircloth may also enter the race. But many analysts predict the voters will pick a younger, more moderate successor to Mr. Helms, someone reflecting the changes in Southern politics. The Senate will also be a different place when Jesse Helms is gone.