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U.S. Senator Craig Thomas dies

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From staff and wire reports

Craig Thomas, who has served Wyoming for almost 19 years in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate, will be difficult to replace, said colleagues.

Thomas, 74, died Monday evening at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., of acute myeloid leukemia. His family had said earlier in the day that his cancer had been resistant to a second round of chemotherapy.

He had also developed an infection, his family said.

Thomas was hospitalized with pneumonia just before the 2006 election, but won with 70 percent of the vote, monitoring the election from his hospital bed.

Two days after the election, Thomas announced that he had just been diagnosed with leukemia. He started chemotherapy, and returned to the Senate in December. He returned for a second round of chemotherapy in May.

Thomas was a low-key lawmaker who reliably represented the interests of his conservative state, often becoming involved in public lands issues. He worked in behind-the-scenes posts to oversee national parks.

President Bush called Thomas "a man of character and integrity known for his devotion to the values he shared with the people of Wyoming."

"He leaves a lasting legacy as a guardian of Wyoming's lands and resources and our country's National Parks," Bush said.

Republican Mike Enzi, Wyoming's other senator, gave an emotional speech on the Senate floor Tuesday morning, his voice cracking as he spoke of his friend.

"Craig died as he lived, with his spurs on, fighting for Wyoming until the very end," Enzi said.

"The Senate will not be the same," he said.

Vice President Dick Cheney, who held Wyoming's only House seat before Thomas replaced him in 1989, called Thomas a friend and said "he never let us down."

"Even in a time of serious illness Craig was faithful to his duties in the United States Senate," Cheney said. "His passing represents a profound loss to the Senate, to Wyoming, and to America."

Gov. Dave Freudenthal called Thomas' death "a very big loss to the people of this state," saying "he carried the values that we treasure in Wyoming to Washington and had many successes."

Praise came from Campbell County, too, where people who knew Thomas expressed surprise at his fast decline. State Senate Majority Leader John Hines, R-Gillette, said he'd seen Thomas in April. While Wyoming's senior U.S. senator hadn't looked well, Hines thought he might be on the mend.

"We were both elected to the state House in 1984 and we worked together and have been friends ever since," Hines said. "We were both ones who were considered to be conservatives and believed in the free private enterprise system."

Joanne Tweedy, who ran many of Thomas' campaigns locally, echoed those who called him an honorable man. She, too, had been surprised by his death, calling it a "sad day" for Wyoming.

"He was a leader in the energy bill that passed in 2005, making sure that we in Wyoming were in the forefront of those negotiations," Tweedy said.

"He will be missed."

The state's only member of the House, Republican Barbara Cubin, said Thomas was "a trusted colleague and a true friend."

Wyoming Democratic Party Chairman John Millin said Thomas brought "dignity and thoughtfulness" to the political process, and Wyoming GOP Chairman Fred Parady called Thomas a "true champion."

Senate leaders delayed votes Tuesday so that members could give tributes to Thomas on the floor. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., praised the senator's tenacity and his work on lands issues.

"He told you how he felt," Reid said.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell called Thomas "a born fighter."

"We're consoled by the thought that he'll ride again," McConnell said.

"Wyoming had no greater advocate, taxpayers had no greater watchdog, and rural America had no greater defender than Craig Thomas," McConnell said.

Thomas entered Congress in a special election in 1989 to replace Cheney when he was named defense secretary by the first President Bush. Thomas won that race with 52 percent of the vote.

In 1994, Thomas won his first Senate race by beating former Gov. Mike Sullivan, and he was re-elected with 74 percent of the vote in 2000.

He was born in Cody and was raised on a ranch. He graduated from the University of Wyoming with a degree in agriculture, then served four years in the U.S. Marines.

He is survived by his wife, Susan, and four children.

WHAT'S NEXT?

- GOVERNOR APPOINTS: In accordance with state law, Gov. Dave Freudenthal, a Democrat, will appoint a successor to Craig Thomas' U.S. Senate seat from one of three finalists chosen by the state Republican party. The GOP now has 15 days to convene and choose the nominees. Once the governor receives the names from the party, he has five days to choose one.

- TERM: The new senator will serve until the next general election in 2008, when a special election will determine who completes Thomas's term, which runs through 2012.

- BALANCE OF POWER: Nothing changes in the U.S. Senate since Freudenthal must appoint a Republican. Democrats and Republicans each have 49 members of the 100-member Senate. But two independents vote and organize with Democrats, giving them the slim majority they presently hold. Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., has been recovering from major illness and has not participated in Senate activities in months.

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