COLUMBIA - As Democrats gather at the Galivants Ferry Stump today to honor U.S. Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings' half-century in politics, there's a looming question about who will be the state party's leader when he retires.
Ever since Mr. Hollings, who is not seeking a seventh term, launched his statewide political career at the stump in 1954, the Democrats have slipped from power.
While the weakened party attempts to rebuild itself, political observers say it will be tough to fill the void of Mr. Hollings' clout and stature, which took decades to build.
"With Sen. Hollings stepping down, it's not like he passes the torch to a new dean. Nobody can walk in those shoes," said state party Chairman Joe Erwin. "We're all going to have to work that much harder."
Mr. Hollings will leave his post up for grabs in a state where the GOP already dominates the congressional delegation and controls the governor's office and Legislature.
Veteran Democrats U.S. Reps. Jim Clyburn and John Spratt, who are expected to honor Mr. Hollings today, say they're ready to step up and play bigger roles in the party's future.
"I guess I graduate to the dean of the delegation, but I don't think for one minute I will be equal to Sen. Hollings and what he's been able to do," said Mr. Spratt, who has been in Congress since 1983.
Mr. Clyburn, a six-term congressman, said Mr. Spratt has a long and illustrious career.
"I think the heir-apparent to Fritz Hollings is John Spratt," he said. "John Spratt, I think, is much more of a policy wonk than I am, and Fritz Hollings was a bit of a policy wonk."
Mr. Hollings declined an interview request last week.
Republicans were left without their patriarch last year when U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond retired in January 2003, then died in June, but unlike the Democrats, the GOP has a long list of rising stars.
"We've got great players in the Democratic Party, and we've got great players in the Republican Party," said Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon. "The Democrats don't have a deep bench. All of their great players are in the game."
In the past year, Democrats have been energized by Mr. Erwin's new leadership and attracted new faces with their high-profile presidential primary in February.
"Right now, it's getting a lot more exciting and enjoyable to be a South Carolina Democrat," Mr. Erwin said.
The party faithful hope to rally more support at the Galivants Ferry Stump, a 124-year-old grass-roots political rally.
Organizers expect a large crowd at the biennial event, with the party focused on the race for Mr. Hollings' seat. It was at the stump a half-century ago that Mr. Hollings announced his bid for lieutenant governor when his party dominated the state.
Today, the party is working to reinvent itself.
"We are not going to take any voters for granted, and that's happened in the past, and that's not good," Mr. Erwin said.
Lou Krasky/associated pressSen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings, D-S.C., is retiring after 50 years in state politics, leaving a hole in his party's hierarchy.