COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) _ The retirement of Democratic Sen. Ernest ``Fritz'' Hollings of South Carolina has Republicans jumping at the chance to take over the seat in the increasingly GOP-leaning state.
The 81-year-old Hollings announced Monday he will not seek re-election next year, ending a 55-year political career. ``It's time I go out and work and make a living,'' he said.
Hollings is the third senator to announce he will retire after the 2004 elections. The others are Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill., and Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga.
The decisions by Hollings and Miller confront Democrats with the need to hold on to both Southern seats while they drive to regain control of the Senate. Republicans control the Senate 51-48, with one independent.
Hollings acknowledged a changing political landscape in South Carolina, which has been voting increasingly Republican. The state House, Senate and governor's office all are GOP-controlled.
``It wouldn't be easy for anybody who's a Democrat in this state to get elected,'' he said.
Still, he used his retirement announcement to lash out at President Bush, calling him ``a good fraternity brother'' and the weakest president he's seen in his half century of public service.
``I say 'weak president' in that the poor boy campaigns all the time and pays no attention to what's going on in Congress,'' Hollings said. ``Karl Rove tells him to do this or do that or whatever it is. But he's out campaigning.''
Hollings, a former state legislator, lieutenant governor and governor, was first elected to the Senate in 1966. His tenure has been marked by support for defense spending and attacks on federal deficits, and his care in tending to issues of interest in his home state.
With the textile and other industries badly damaged in South Carolina, he battled a series of trade bills in recent years, arguing they shipped jobs overseas.
``I believe history will report that Fritz Hollings was the best and most effective senator in our state's history,'' Charleston Mayor and fellow Democrat Joseph P. Riley Jr. said.
Former Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges said Hollings has been a great senator who sometimes ``does not get the credit he deserves,'' citing his leadership on homeland-security issues and utility deregulation.
``He has 30-plus years in Washington. He deserves to savor the victories,'' Hodges said.
Hollings became the state's senior statesman when the country's longest-serving senator, Republican Strom Thurmond, retired earlier this year. Thurmond, who died in June, was succeeded by former Rep. Lindsey Graham, also a Republican.
Inez Tenenbaum, the Democratic state education superintendent, has signaled an interest in running for Hollings' seat. She said Monday she has not yet made a decision. Columbia Mayor Bob Coble is also a potential contender.
Several Republicans have begun campaigning for the seat, including Rep. Jim DeMint, former state attorney general Charlie Condon, real estate developer Thomas Ravenel and Myrtle Beach Mayor Mark McBride.