Nunn's Exit Spells End of Dixiecrats and Omen to Democrats Georgian's Decision Not to Seek Reelection May Further Tighten GOP Senate Grip

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THE days of the Dixiecrat may be coming to an end.

The retirement of Sam Nunn of Georgia, one of the Senate's most respected Democrats and a leader on defense issues, signals the end of an era for the South.

His decision not to run for reelection in 1996 also deals a heavy blow to the Democratic Party, which is seeing its dream of retaking control of the Senate next year fade.

A more likely question is whether Republicans, who control 53 of 100 seats, will hold a filibuster-proof majority of 60 after the next election. Mr. Nunn is the eighth Democratic senator to bow out of the 1996 election. Only one Republican is not running again.

But for the South, once the backbone of the Democratic Party, Nunn's departure Monday is nothing less than a watershed.

"It's a major change for Georgia politics, for Southern politics, and maybe even national politics," says Charles Bullock, political scientist at the University of Georgia, Athens. "The way he went about his job was emblematic of an approach that used to be very widespread and now is nearing extinction."

"It really is the end of an era," concurs political analyst Charles Cook.

Three other longtime Southern Democratic senators - Bennett Johnston of Louisiana, Howell Heflin of Alabama, and David Pryor of Arkansas - have also announced they will not seek reelection. So Nunn's announcement leaves only Ernest Hollings of South Carolina and Charles Robb of Virginia representing conservative Southern Democrats in the Senate.

But Senator Robb is more of a "national" conservative and Senator Hollings doesn't evoke the same rural, regional traits that Dixiecrats like Nunn have, Cook says.

Nunn's departure also represents a blow to bipartisanship in an institution where working cooperatively with members of the other party is becoming less and less common. Younger, brasher members of the Senate, such as Rick Santorum (R) of Pennsylvania, tend to come out of the Newt Gingrich school of governance.

Before Nunn's announcement Monday, senators from both parties were trying to persuade the Georgian to run for a fifth term, which he likely would have won. (His approval rating in Georgia was more than 70 percent.) Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina, the Senate's only nonagenarian and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the panel Nunn headed when Democrats were in the majority, made a strong plea for him to stay on. …