Is he still the man to lead the fight for social issues?

Last December, on the floor of the U.S. Senate, moderate Republican Alan K. Simpson accused Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) of “obdurate and obnoxious” tactics. He was so angry he refused to shake Helms’s proffered hand, violating sacred Senate courtesy. Days later, Helms drove south to Raleigh for Christmas. When he stopped at Hardee’s for a snack, everyone inside rose to give him a resounding ovation.

Jesse Helms provokes strong reactions. In Washington, as in North Carolina, few are ambivalent about the leading legislator of the Religious Right. Throughout his decade in office, Helms has viewed the Senate as a staging ground for a massive moral and spiritual crusade, guided by the free-market principles of conservative populism. “We become part of what we condone,” he has said, giving rationale for putting “social issues” first.

Evangelicals tend to admire his depth of conviction and ability to weather verbal abuse. Many support his prolife and school prayer advocacy. Others shake their heads about his sweeping conservative agenda, which, among other things, has pitted him against Bread for the World over the issue of food stamp cuts.

Among strategy planners in Washington, Helms’s assets and liabilities are being scrutinized as never before. That’s ironic because Helms was hailed in the daily press only a year ago as potentially one of the most powerful members of the Senate. But then Helms tried and failed to get his antiabortion legislation through the Senate last fall. In December, his filibuster against the gasoline tax threatened to keep the entire Senate in Washington over Christmas. It was that two-week trench fight that led to Simpson’s rebuff and to resentment from ...

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