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Will there be chaos or calm after the Strom?

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Last November, NANCY THURMOND, wife of South Carolina Senator STROM THURMOND, walked into the office of the state's Democratic Governor, Jim Hodges, and played him a videocassette. On it, to Hodges' amazement, the aging Republican announced that he was resigning from the Senate and that he wanted his wife to fill his seat. Was this the last hurrah for Thurmond, 98, a Senator since 1954? Apparently not. Several days later, Thurmond issued a statement claiming he had no intention of stepping down before his term ends in January 2003. The Thurmonds (who have been separated since 1991) won't comment on the bizarre episode. But it raises anew the issue of Thurmond's health--and what his retirement might mean for a Senate now divided 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans.

"He's not doing well," says a senior G.O.P. aide. Thurmond has been hospitalized five times in the past nine months, once after losing consciousness. If he resigns and Hodges appoints a Democrat to serve out his term, Democrats will take the Senate with a 51-to-49 majority, placing President Bush's legislative agenda in peril.

Republicans are already making private contingency plans for that possibility. Though Thurmond shows up for practically every floor vote, he is too frail to handle most other duties. He has given up his Armed Services Committee chairmanship, stopped gaveling the Senate into session each morning and returned to South Carolina only three times in the past year. At hearings, he speaks only from note cards and on occasion has appeared disoriented on the Senate floor. "He still knows what he's voting for," says a Democratic Senator. "But if I were a South Carolinian, I would want more from my Senator."

The state's voters still love Thurmond, though, and will be watching closely to see who replaces him. Not necessarily a Democrat, say some of the state party's officials, who are irked at the national party for what they see as a lack of support and attention since Bush won the state by 16 percentage points. "It might be very popular if Hodges named a Republican to fill Thurmond's seat," a top South Carolina Democratic Party strategist tells Time. And if Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle doesn't like it? "Well, he can go fly a kite."


Cover Date: March 5, 2001



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