Washington Prowler

Senate Goes South

Democrats poised to lose big in the Carolinas.

By 8.5.03

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THE CLINCHER
It wasn't really a surprise that South Carolina Sen. Fritz Hollings yesterday announced he won't run for re-election next year. What was surprising was how old he seemed in doing so. "He was practically unintelligible," says a reporter who read a transcript of the now-senior senator's remarks, delivered at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. "He couldn't put two sentences together that made any sense."

Hollings was not gracious about his exit. He called President Bush "weak" and as much as said that the president was a puppet of adviser Karl Rove.

Senate Democrats in recent weeks had begged Hollings to reconsider his decision, in part because of concerns that the party was facing an already brutal 2004 campaign cycle.

Hollings will retire next year having served as his state's senior senator for all of two years. The 81-year-old spent more than a record 35 years in the Senate as a junior senator by dint of the fact that he followed in Sen. Strom Thurmond's footsteps.

As The Prowler reported earlier this year, Hollings appeared to be leaning toward retirement since he hadn't held a fundraiser for himself this campaign cycle. His making it official all but guarantees that Democrats will not regain control of the Senate in 2004. The Republicans, who face tough campaigns in Alaska and Illinois, are assured better than 50-50 shots at making up those seats in Georgia, where Sen. Zell Miller is retiring, and now in South Carolina. Rep. Jim DeMint is a favorite for the Republican nomination, along with the state's former attorney general Charlie Condon.

Former Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges was thought to be a strong option on the Democratic side, though already several other state politicians are studying the race.

CAROLINA STATE OF MIND
There is a belief inside the presidential campaign of Sen. John Edwards that he reaching a point where, as one staffer put it, "he will have to either fish or cut the line altogether." This after Rep. Dick Gephardt identified South Carolina as a critical state for his own political future, as well as that for gaining the full endorsement of the AFL-CIO membership.

Gephardt, who received an endorsement from the Teamsters late last week, is trolling for further union support in South Carolina, a state whose industrial base has been hammered for decades by free trade initiatives and the like. Edwards had been focusing much his attention on South Carolina, expecting that as a Southerner, and a native son, an early win here would propel him deep into the abbreviated Democratic primary season.

But Gephardt's need to get as much union backing as he can to ensure his campaign's survival has seen him turn his attention to the South. "Iowa is in decent shape," says a Gephardt adviser. "Dean and Kerry will be a handful, but we have the organization there. Now we focus on South Carolina."

Some Democrats are encouraging Edwards to pull back and to prepare his Senate re-election campaign in North Carolina, where he is expected to face a strong challenged from Republicans.

"It's getting to the point where the Senate races are looking pretty grim," says a Democratic Senate staffer. "We've lost Miller, Hollings, we may lose Edwards and maybe even Graham [in Florida]. That's getting close to giving the Republicans a real shot at 60 if everything breaks right. We know it won't, but still. If Edwards wants a future in this party, he may have to swallow his pride and think about the bigger picture."

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