The eventual departure of the senior senator with a large constituency opens a debate about whether Republicans can hold on to the coveted Senate seat.
Cobey said he is confident that the seat will remain Republican, citing President George W. Bush's overwhelming win over Democrat Al Gore in North Carolina during the 2000 presidential election. "With this strong field of potential candidates we will prevail and keep this seat in the Republican column in 2002," he said. "We don't think the Democrats will give us anything."
Richard Vinroot, a former Charlotte mayor, who is eyeing a Senate campaign, said 2002 would have been a tough election year whether Helms ran or not. "This will be a vigorously contested seat no matter who is running."
Five Republicans whose names have been mentioned as possible candidates for Helms' seat include Richard Burr, who represents the 5th Congressional District; former presidential candidate Elizabeth Dole; former U.S. Senator Lauch Faircloth, who served from 1992-98; Robin Hayes, who represents the 8th Congressional District; and Vinroot.
None of the Republicans have officially announced their candidacy.
Beyle said Republican leadership is pushing for Dole to solidify the seat for the party. "The national Republican senatorial leadership think those aren't strong enough candidates," he said. "They don't want to lose the seat."
Vinroot said party leaders have encouraged him to run for the seat.
"They're big shoes to fill," he said. "But there's a lot of awfully good people out there to fill those shoes."
But Beyle said that while many consider Dole a leading candidate, the push for her nomination originates from national party leadership.
"They're trying to make (her) the front-runner," he said. "The Elizabeth Dole movement is from the top down."
Going For Two
The Democratic Party has offered its own list of potential candidates, including N.C. Rep. Dan Blue, D-Wake, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall and Mark Erwin, a Charlotte businessman and former ambassador.
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Only Marshall has formally announced her candidacy.
But the biggest news from the Democratic Party this summer was that three of its most prominent members will not seek the seat.
N.C. Senate President Pro Tem Mark Basnight, D-Beaufort; Erskine Bowles, a Charlotte banker who served as President Clinton's chief of staff; and Rep. Bob Etheridge, who represents the 2nd Congressional District, have announced they will not seek the party's nomination.
Marshall said she is confident Democrats will gain the seat in 2003.
"It's the end of a dynasty," she said. "Currently the Senate is Democratic. Two Democrats working for the state would be beautiful."
Erwin said he will announce whether he is running in September. "I'm trying to determine if I can run a successful campaign," he said. "Is this what I want to do for the next 7 1/2 years?"
Blue could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
With such an open race, voters are more likely to consider the strength of a particular candidate over party affiliation, some experts say.
Issues likely to be debated during the campaign are education, social security, health care and the environment.
UNC political science Professor George Rabinowitz said he expects the state of the economy to play a large role in the way voters perceive candidates.
"I think it's very dependent on the strength of the candidate and the way the economy is going," he said. "If the economy looks strong the Republicans will have the advantage, but if it's at the state where it's at now, deteriorating, the Democrats will have it."
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