For the first time in 28 years, North Carolina voters face the task of filling an open seat in the U.S. Senate -- and on Tuesday they'll decide who gets the Democratic and Republican Party nominations to succeed Sen. Jesse Helms, at once the most divisive and enduringly popular figure in state political history.
And in a state where negative campaigns have marred Senate contests for nearly three decades, the driving factor and overriding issue in this primary is corporate America. A major national retailer appears to be backing front-running Republican Elizabeth Dole with a glossy mailing, while Democratic challengers are hurling accusations of corporate missteps at the Democratic leader, wealthy Charlotte businessman Erskine Bowles, the former White House chief of staff.
Not since the 1974 retirement of U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin have Tar Heel voters had a vacant Senate seat to fill; the recent tradition of N.C. voters is to keep changing senators and party affiliations in Senator Sam's old seat every election, but to consistently vote Jesse Helms back into office. Although Helms never won big, he always won -- serving five straight Senate terms while sometimes tying the Senate in knots and sending liberal Democrats up the wall at every opportunity.
What makes the 2002 Senate election so interesting is that the person voters choose to succeed Jesse Helms will be exceedingly unlike Jesse Helms, regardless of who wins. The odds-on favorite is Dole, a North Carolina native who lived in Washington, ran for president from Kansas and now has landed back in North Carolina to run for the Senate.
Dole has demonstrated such flexibility on such issues as gun control (she once supported a ban on concealed guns and assault weapons but no longer sees the need) that many find it mind-boggling that she has been endorsed by Sen. Helms, who has a reputation for rigid consistency in his positions.
"On most issues, I'm right where he (Helms) is," Dole said recently. "There's certainly issues where we might see things a bit differently Maybe it's a matter of style in a certain sense because I'm a great believer in building coalitions."
Dole also been endorsed by President George Bush, who has campaigned for her four times this year. Although Helms has been laid up for much of the year recovering from heart surgery, he has also campaigned for Dole, leaving a handful of other U.S. Senate candidates complaining about pressure from Washington Republicans to ignore the rest of the GOP field.
Republican Jim Snyder, a wealthy lawyer who is campaigning on issues that seem to more clearly identify him with Jesse Helms' long tradition of rock-ribbed conservatism, is trailing badly in the polls but believes the party's endorsement of Dole in a primary will backfire. "We are sick and tired of Washington telling us how to run our lives and now they're coming down here and telling us who to vote for," Snyder tells audiences.
Dole is leading by a mile in money raising ($9.7 million), seems popular with Tar Heel voters everywhere she goes and even leads in the luck department. When national retailer Wal-Mart wanted to emphasize its commitment to reading, it put Elizabeth Dole on the cover of a huge mass mailing that reached 200,000 N.C. mailboxes just last week and millions more nationally.
Democrats and Republicans suspect it was not an accident, given that Dole also received $14,000 in contributions from company executives but Wal-Mart spokesman say the company wasn't trying to influence the election. In the primary, at least, Dole should have little trouble running away with a majority in the seven candidate primary field.
But in North Carolina politics, general elections are closely-fought contests. Once the primary dust settles, both the Republican and Democratic nominees start out with approximately 40 to 45 percent of the vote and the fight is over the 10 to 20 percent undecided.
Erskine Bowles, the son of a popular statesenator and state cabinet official whose campaign for governor was steamrollered by the Nixon juggernaut in 1972 that also brought into Helms into office, has campaigned hard for the Democratic nomination as an advocate of the ordinary people, reminding them of the work he did as chairman of a commission on the rural economy.
He tells voters he tries to do what his father always urged him to do: "add a little to the community woodpile."
Close behind in the Democratic primary race are state Rep. Dan Blue of Raleigh, the South's first black speaker of the House who compiled an excellent legislative record but who put off fellow Democrats when he toyed with an alliance with Republicans in his bid to regain the speakership; and N.C. Secretary of State Elaine Marshall of Buie's Creek, who ran retired popular NASCAR driver and Republican Richard Petty off the political speedway and into the ditch in their 1998 race for secretary of state.
Marshall is thought to be running third, but she likes to tell voters, "I wasn't afraid of King Richard and I'm not afraid of Queen Elizabeth."
Bowles is generally regarded as the front runner, not the least because of his money (he loaned his campaign $1.3 million and has raised $5.8 million) but also because of his grasp of the issues and intensity of his focus. Marshall has raised about $774,000 and Blue about $573,000. But this campaign is difficult to read; because of a long-running legislative redistricting dispute, the primary was delayed from May to Sept.10 and the state's infamous runoff primary, which has cost black candidates the Democratic nomination in some previous elections, was cancelled.
While this could mean Bowles won't have to fend off a second-place finisher in a runoff, it might also mean that Blue could win the nomination in one primary with a heavy black voter turnout. Meanwhile, Marshall is hoping her excellent reputation for customer service and her image as a giant-killer will bring her the nomination. Six other Democrats are also on the ballot.
As the campaign went into its final days one continually hot issue is North Carolina's heavy loss of jobs due to the collapse of the state's textile-and-tobacco economy. Mrs. Dole is the sole strong proponent of giving the president fast-track trade authority. Bowles pushed the NAFTA trade agreement while he was in the White House but has since said that a lack of adequate enforcement cost North Carolina many thousands of jobs. Blue and Marshall are hammering away at Bowles on that point and his corporate connections to companies whose investors have sustained heavy losses.
What's not clear is whether Bowles' service in the White House - and his connection to President Clinton, who never won North Carolina - will hurt him in the primary. Democrats haven't used that weapon against him, but it will be fascinating to see whether, if he wins the Democratic nomination Tuesday and Dole wins the Republicans, the general election once again will return to the kind of negative campaigning and guilt-by-association that has marked so many North Carolina campaigns for the last 30 years.
Jack Betts is a columnist and associate editor of The Charlotte Observer. He is based in Raleigh.