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Democrats eye Dole’s seat as foe cuts gap to 6 points

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Time was, Democrats in Southern states such as North Carolina were tied to the national party the way a boat is tied to its anchor, holding them back when it wasn't halting their progress completely.

Not this time.

Incumbent Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole has the name recognition, the bigger war chest and a lead in the polls against her Democratic challenger, state Sen. Kay Hagan of Greensboro. Yet with Barack Obama sparking a surge in voter registrations and the national Democratic Party pouring millions of dollars into the race, the anchor may become a sail.

"This race is very precarious; it's very much in play," insisted Tom Campbell, a former Democratic assistant state treasurer and host of a weekly state public affairs discussion show called "No Spin."

"You tell me how big the Obama surge is in North Carolina, and I'll tell you how the Senate race goes. For Hagan to be within five points of 'Queen Elizabeth' at this point must make the Republicans very nervous," he said.

Republicans, predictably, accuse their opponents of whistling Dixie in what is still largely a conservative state with one of the nation's largest military populations. Many of the same arguments - that she is out of touch with ordinary North Carolinians, that she spent too much time in Washington - were trotted out six years ago when Mrs. Dole comfortably defeated the well-funded Erskine Bowles, a former chief of staff to President Clinton, to win her first Senate race.

Mrs. Hagan, a five-term state senator and co-chairman of the budget committee, "is probably the best available candidate the Democrats could have nominated, but it's still a pretty long shot for her to win," said John Hood, president of Raleigh-based John Locke Institute and a designated conservative voice on Mr. Campbell's "No Spin" panel.

"The national mood is clearly not in the Republicans' favor, but Dole is likely to outperform the GOP brand in North Carolina because she has major crossover appeal," he said.

Mrs. Dole, one of a number of vulnerable Republican senators who have found a reason to miss the party's convention in Minneapolis, did not mention the R-word, President Bush or nominee John McCain in her first flight of campaign ads, which aired this spring shortly after Mrs. Hagan was selected.

Instead, the ads focused on Mrs. Dole's clout in delivering for state constituents on issues such as tobacco farm payments and support for local sheriffs to crack down on illegal immigration.

Polls show that Mrs. Hagan has cut a double-digit deficit down to 6 percentage points over the summer, but Mr. Hood noted that the supposedly deep-red state has a history of tight Senate races.

The late Sen. Jesse Helms, father of the modern Republican Party in the state, averaged just 52.4 percent of the vote in his five Senate races, topping out at just 54.5 percent in 1978.

"Anyone who thought Dole was going to run away with the race just doesn't understand North Carolina," Mr. Hood said, "but that doesn't mean she's going to lose."

Recent polls show Mrs. Hagan at least within striking distance, while Mr. Obama makes a big push to challenge Mr. McCain at the top of the ticket.

A July 29 poll by Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling showed Mrs. Dole with a 49-40 edge over Mrs. Hagan. An Aug. 12 poll by SurveyUSA for WTVD saw that margin shrink to 46-41 for Mrs. Dole, with wild-card Libertarian candidate and potential spoiler Chris Cole at 7 percent.

"The momentum right now is with Hagan," said Public Policy Polling President Dean Debnam. "If she has enough financial support, I think she has a shot, though she's going to have to work really hard to pull it off."

Democrats like Mr. Campbell say the Obama candidacy has sparked more than 250,000 new voter registrations in North Carolina since the beginning of the year, with newly registered Democrats outnumbering new Republicans by an 8-1 margin.

"That's got to be scaring the Republicans to death," he said.

Mr. Debnam noted that his poll was taken before a reported $7-million-plus ad campaign for Mrs. Hagan funded by the national Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee began running its first anti-Dole campaign spots.

The pollster said the Obama effect in North Carolina should be easy to measure the day after the November election. Black voters, a solid Democratic bloc, typically make up about 17 percent of the state's total vote.

"If that number gets up to 23 percent, the Democrats win the state," he said.

National pollsters have put North Carolina in the second tier of vulnerable Senate seats for the Republicans, saying Mrs. Hagan remains the underdog but a Democratic win is still possible in a difficult political and economic environment for the Republicans.

"The national Democratic Party used to be a drag on the state party, but not this time," the conservative Mr. Hood said.

"Put it this way: If candidates like Hagan win this year, it will be a sign that we're having another 'wave' election like 2006, where the issue was much bigger than what was happening in North Carolina."