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Battle Is On For Jesse Helms' Seat

A day after Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., announced his retirement, the speculation is already beginning as to who will fill the veteran conservative's seat.

Among the names being floated for a 2002 run include Elizabeth Dole, the former Cabinet official and GOP presidential hopeful, who has a draft effort behind her but hasn't indicated yet whether she's interested.

Dole, the wife of former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, was born and raised in North Carolina and graduated from Duke University, but hasn't lived in the state in over three decades.

Dole's name recognition and popularity aren't scaring off other potential Republican candidates.

Former North Carolina Sen. Lauch Faircloth, who lost his seat in 1998 to current Democratic Sen. John Edwards, said he's giving "serious thought" to reclaiming a spot in the Senate. Rep. Richard Burr and Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot have also been mentioned as candidates.

Democratic strategist Harrison Hickman feels that if Dole decides to run there will be "a blood feud between local conservatives and national moderates."

The thinking is that national moderate Republicans are the ones pushing a Dole candidacy - an idea Faircloth wasted no time in emphasizing.

"I believe the choice of our next senator should be made by North Carolinians and not by Washington, D.C. politicians," Faircloth said in a statement.

On the Democratic side, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall has already jumped into the race as two other high-profile Democrats - former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and Gov. Jim Hunt - have decided against running.

Marshall, who beat NASCAR driver Richard Petty for her seat, still "has to prove herself," said Hickman. Her victory "was like hitting a home run off of a celebrity pitcher," he said.

Helms' retirement announcement, coupled with fellow conservative Sen. Strom Thurmond's decision not to seek re-election, means the GOP has two open seats to defend. On top of that, of the 34 total Senate seats up for election, 20 are Republican.

In a Senate currently composed of 50 Democrats, 49 Republicans and 1 independent, will Helms' retirement make it more difficult for the GOP to gain seats next year?

"It changes nothing," said Chuck Todd, editor in chief of The Hotline, a political journal. Interestingly, Todd thinks, "it would have been a tough seat for the Republicans to hold" whether Helms retired or not.

Hickman agrees, saying even if Helms ran again, "it would have been hard for the Republicans." Hickman pointed out Helms had tough fights in his last two elections in 1990 and 1996 against Democrat Harvey Gantt.

Republican strategist Ed Goeas, not surprisingly, feels it won't be a problem for the GOP to retain Helms' seat, saying the possible field contains "strong candidates for the state."

"While Republicans suffered a setback in growing more Republican [in North Carolina in 1998], there were no signs of that in 2000," Goeas said, expcting his party's strength to continue in the next election.

But because the North Carolina seat is open, and open seats are more costly, Todd pointed out the Republican Party will have to spend more money on the race than they would have if Helms were running again.

"It now means the party and other resources are going to be drained," he says.

With a potentially vicious Republican primary and the large amount of money that's bound to be spent on the Senate race, North Carolina promises to be one of the more interesting contests to watch over the next year.

"It's going to be better than having the carnival in town every week," Hickman said.

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