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Jesse Helms touts Elizabeth Dole as successor

By Robert Yoon
CNN Washington Bureau

ARLINGTON, Virginia (CNN) -- Sen. Jesse Helms made it clear Thursday night in a speech to fellow conservative Republicans that he fully supports Elizabeth Dole's bid to fill the North Carolina seat he has held in the U.S. Senate for five terms.

Helms didn't officially endorse her, but left little doubt that Dole was his preferred successor.

"She'll make North Carolina proud when she walks down the center aisle in the Senate next fall," Helms told a crowd at the Conservative Political Action Committee's annual conference. "The new conservative Republican senator from North Carolina, Elizabeth Dole."

Dole, wife of former Sen. Bob Dole and a former presidential candidate, also was at the CPAC conference to introduce Helms, at his invitation.

CNN's Candy Crowley reports on the 29th annual meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference (February 1)

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"Jesse, as I travel around North Carolina, people tell me they want me to be just like you," Dole said in introducing Helms. "And while I'm running to succeed you, I will never replace you."

Helms' clear showing of support came a day after another prominent Republican -- President George W. Bush -- used his high approval ratings to give Dole a boost at a joint appearance in a Winston-Salem textile district. Some Republican critics have questioned Dole's conservative credentials, given the moderate stands she adopted on abortion and gun control during her brief presidential campaign.

Bush did not endorse Dole at the event, but some have said that it is unusual for a sitting president to offer clear, albeit unspoken, support for a candidate who has yet to win the party's primary.

Helms also broke with his own personal tradition with his support of Dole. With the exception of the 1976 North Carolina presidential primary, when he endorsed Ronald Reagan, Helms rarely endorses candidates before the primary election.

The retiring senator's comments provide some much-welcomed news for Dole, who has been hounded for more than two weeks with questions surrounding her participation in a fund-raiser hosted by embattled former Enron Corp. CEO Kenneth Lay.

Dole's campaign raised $20,000 at the Houston, Texas, event, held nine days after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Lay and his family contributed $5,000 to the Dole campaign, which Dole has since announced she would donate to a fund established to aid financially strapped Enron employees.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee will begin airing ads Friday in North Carolina and Washington, D.C., slamming Dole for her participation in the fund-raiser.

James Snyder, a Lexington, North Carolina, attorney who is challenging Dole for the Republican nomination, said the high-profile visits with Bush and Helms is actually a sign that the Washington establishment has concerns about the Dole campaign.

"Why would they find it necessary for them to come to the aid of Elizabeth Dole, the most famous Republican woman in the nation," Snyder said. "The Washington hierarchy didn't stop to think about what would come forward from the residency issue, the fund-raising, her stands on the Second Amendment and the protection of human life. It shows that her campaign is in trouble."

Helms announced last August that he would not seek a sixth term in the Senate. He is North Carolina's longest-serving U.S. senator.


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