How popular is Jesse Helms?

Pretty darned popular, if you use Southern pecan pie as a measuring stick. On May 19, the 79-year-old U.S. senator, walking slowly and leaning on a cane, made his way to the stage at the Raleigh Civic and Convention Center to chat with the faithful in attendance at the state Republican Party convention.

When Helms started talking, people stopped eating. All around the room, Republicans were dropping their forks right in the middle of dessert. Everywhere you looked there were half-eaten and even untouched pieces of delectable pecan pie.

Can you imagine Democrats doing the same for a Jim Hunt speech?

It only took a few seconds before Helms had the GOP crowd in a trance. Although outside the convention, there are people who believe the senator is vulnerable if he opts to run for a sixth term, there was none of that feeling inside the hall. Helms was in splendid form as he entertained party insiders for 45 minutes on the closing night of the convention. He told folksy stories and implored his followers to get down on their knees to pray for guidance.

The senator, who has a statue of Saint Francis of Assisi on the lawn of his modest Raleigh home, certainly seems to have had some powerful force on his side for the past 29 years in politics. Suffice it to say that those on the other side may want to start praying harder if they truly want to oust him from Washington.

When he came on the political scene in 1972, Helms was a Cold Warrior not far removed from his openly segregationist past. Many in his own party considered him a joke. Now, party leaders say, Helms has more respect than ever.

He’s “considered one of the elder statesmen of our country,” said state GOP Chairman Bill Cobey, in an interview at the convention. “People in America in general are closer to him. People have moved to the right.”

The state GOP convention isn’t a place where anyone is likely to admit otherwise. And with the election of George Bush–albeit by a slim margin–Helms now has someone in the White House who shares his values. That’s quite a power base.

Still, there were a few signs at last week’s gathering that, if Helms hasn’t changed his ultraconservative principles, he may be altering his image. In answering written questions read to him by Cobey, the senator talked about the United Nations, his recent trip to Mexico and supporting the Boy Scouts. But there was no mention of Helms’ favorite foreign policy theme of old: anti-communism.

Following a few rounds of the audience chanting, “Run, Jesse, run,” Helms announced that he’ll decide by this fall whether to seek re-election. If the senator steps down, Cobey wouldn’t speculate on which candidate the GOP will get to run in his place. But he did hint at one of the fears Republicans have about the prospect of a Helms-less senate race–more Democrats will then be vying for the seat.

“John Edwards came out of nowhere,” Cobey said, referring to the Raleigh lawyer who beat Lauch Faircloth for the state’s other U.S. Senate seat in 1998.

Before he addressed the crowd, Helms took 21-month-old Wilker Marie Ballantine onto his lap for a photo opportunity. Wilker’s daddy is state Senate Minority Leader Patrick Ballantine of New Hanover County.

“If [Helms] chooses to run, he’ll have all of our support,” Ballantine said. “He is truly a living legend. … Even the Democrats respect him more than ever. So I think he’ll be very formidable if he decides to run.”

Winning re-election, it seems, is just a step toward Helms’ larger goals.

“I think that if we work hard, if we stick together, if we pray for guidance,” the senator told the GOP audience, “I believe that we can walk out and say we have saved the republic.”

With an agenda like that, there’s no time for pecan pie.