- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 7, 2003

Sen. Don Nickles announced yesterday he will retire after next year, ending four terms in the Senate and leaving Republicans to defend his Oklahoma seat in the 2004 elections.

“Twenty-four years is a long time,” Mr. Nickles said at a news conference in Oklahoma City, adding that he always intended to return to the private sector.

Mr. Nickles was elected at age 31, just a year older than the constitutional minimum of 30, and is one of the most conservative senators.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, called him “a tireless champion for small businesses and fiscal discipline,” while President Bush said Mr. Nickles “has left his mark on virtually every major issue that has moved through the Senate.”

Mr. Nickles was assistant leader for the Republicans from 1996 to 2002, but had to step down because of a party-imposed term limit. He had considered seeking the top spot in the Senate, but never followed through. This year he became chairman of the Budget Committee, and was a key fighter for President Bush’s tax-cut package.

Democrats said his retirement has a big effect on the 2004 elections.

“This announcement signals one thing emphatically, and that is that Oklahoma on the senatorial level is in play in 2004,” said Brad Woodhouse, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Mr. Nickles would have been a sure bet for re-election, and Democrats said his retirement will at the very least force Republicans to pay attention to this race and less attention to winning a Democrat-held seat in another state.

“If we run a really strong race there, and even if we lose — and I believe we can win — but even if we lost, they’re going to have to pour money into that seat,” said one Democratic Party aide.

But Republicans said the signs for keeping the seat are good.

“Oklahoma has been solid for Republicans in presidential-election years. It’s a state in which President Bush performed particularly well, carrying the state by 22 points in 2000,” said Sen. George Allen, Virginia Republican and chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Mr. Allen also pointed to last year, when Republicans successfully defended open seats in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas, as proof his party can keep Southern seats in the Republican column.

Mr. Nickles joins freshman Republican Sen. Peter G. Fitzgerald of Illinois in not seeking re-election next year. Among Democrats, meanwhile, Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and Sen. Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina have announced they are retiring.

The race to succeed Mr. Nickles is already shaping up.

Two Democrats — second-term Rep. Brad Carson and state Attorney General Drew Edmondson, serving his third term — are considered contenders, though several sources said Mr. Carson is the favorite.

Republicans have already lost the man who, polls show, would have been the strongest candidate. Former Rep. J.C. Watts Jr., who was the highest-ranking black Republican ever in the House until his retirement last year, said yesterday he will not run.

“When I chose to step down from my congressional duties in 2002, I embarked on an exciting new journey in my life,” he said in a statement. “This journey has me in a direction that neither my family nor I am prepared to change at this time.”

Two other Republicans are mentioned as contenders, and party leaders said they will likely face off in a primary: Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys and Rep. Ernest Istook.

Micah Swafford, Mr. Istook’s spokeswoman, yesterday said the congressman hasn’t made a decision but “he is very interested in the race.”

Republican state Sen. James R. Dunlap is also said to be considering a run.

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