- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 9, 2002

NEW BERN, N.C. Elizabeth Dole's campaign to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina resembles that of an incumbent.

Mrs. Dole, who once sought the Republican nomination for president, has the name recognition of an incumbent; uses events with the president, vice president and Senate Republican leader to raise an incumbent-sized treasury; and runs on the implicit endorsement of the departing Mr. Helms.

She also has the incumbent's luxury of not engaging her opponents yet either in the Republican primary or the general election.

"North Carolina deserves better than name-calling and finger-pointing and posturing," she said when asked to critique her opposition. "I want to keep this campaign on the high road."

So far, the high road seems to be working among the general electorate, though not necessarily among her party's faithful.

At the state Republican convention in New Bern, some delegates grumbled that Mrs. Dole's campaign hasn't taken the strong conservative positions the party faithful want to see.

"I think she's always going to run safely," said Mary Williams, a delegate from Moore County, who hadn't made up her mind about whom to support in the primary.

Mrs. Dole dismisses such concerns by pointing to Mr. Helms' backing of her, despite her reputation as a less-conservative Republican.

"I think the fact that Senator Helms invited me to come to the CPAC conference should answer any questions there," she says, referring to the invitation he extended to appear with him at the Conservative Political Action Committee's yearly convention.

Instead of a stump speech, her five-minute address to the convention was an appreciation of Mr. Helms not only allowing her to avoid the barbs of fellow candidates, but also reminding delegates that she is the anointed candidate of their hero, Mr. Helms.

And political observers say it's a solid strategy for her.

"She's way, way ahead on name recognition, and the name recognition is almost all positive, so that's a typical incumbent strategy sit quiet, don't talk about issues if you can avoid it, look sweet and wait for the other guy to stumble or not make headway," says Ted Arrington, political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

The "other guy" in this race isn't yet clear. Mrs. Dole faces a handful of less-known and unknown opponents for the Republican nomination, and the Democratic field is similarly crowded.

Former Clinton administration Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles is the presumed Democratic front-runner, though Secretary of State Elaine Marshall and state Rep. Dan Blue, a former speaker of the North Carolina House, are mounting significant challenges.

The state's primary date has yet to be set, as the state House's legislative map has to be redrawn. Officials are considering canceling the usual run-off election that would result if no candidate wins 40 percent of the vote. Mr. Arrington said that provides an opening for Mr. Blue, the leading black candidate in a state where black voters are expected to cast as many as one-third of the Democratic primary ballots.

Still, with all the other candidates zeroing in on Mrs. Dole and Mr. Bowles at a candidate forum late last month the first such event both have attended it's clear who the front-runners are.

Mr. Bowles is running as a solutions man, saying his reason for going to Washington has little to do with "red meat" social issues and everything to do with his ability to work with both parties to help North Carolina's exploding research areas and slipping rural and textile regions.

"I think I can be one of those people in the sensible center," he said at a spaghetti lunch with supporters in Whiteville, in the state's southeast.

But to do that, he's had to figure out how to handle his Clinton administration service. He was director of the Small Business Administration in addition to being chief of staff.

Mr. Bowles has a record of public service in North Carolina and points to his accomplishments as chairman of a rural-prosperity task force and in promoting health care for the uninsured. But much of his record relates to his time in the Clinton administration, so Mr. Bowles has a stock answer when asked how he can praise some administration successes, such as a balanced budget, but dissociate himself from the rest of the former president's legacy.

"Nobody was tougher on the president than I was, publicly or privately, about his personal failings. What he did was just plain wrong, and I make no apology for feeling the way I do about him," Mr. Bowles said. "At the same time, as you can see, I am very proud of the things I did as part of that administration."

"At the end of the day, people are going to have to make a decision whether they're going to vote for me based on who I am," he said.

When he was in the Clinton administration, Mr. Bowles was a free-trade advocate, and though he says that hasn't changed, he told the crowd in Whiteville he would have voted against the trade-promotion package that came through the Senate in May. He said that other nations aren't abiding by already negotiated agreements, and that until they do, free trade must mean "fair trade."

That provides one contrast with Mrs. Dole, who said she supports the Bush administration's original trade bill, but also backs an amendment that aided textile workers a large constituency in North Carolina that blames free-trade agreements for recent hard times.

She cites her experience in Washington as head of the Transportation and Labor departments, and as president of the American Red Cross as evidence she knows the players and can get things done. But there has been some whispered criticism among Democrats that her long absence from North Carolina makes her a carpetbagger.

Mrs. Dole began running her first television advertisements late last month. They point to her roots in North Carolina and label her a "small-town girl" from Salisbury.

She also leads in money. The next reports are due to the Federal Election Commission next week, but through the end of March, her $5.5 million was more than most Senate incumbents running nationwide. That figure topped the rest of the North Carolina Senate field both parties combined. Mr. Bowles was second, with $3.2 million.

But celebrity front-runners don't always win in North Carolina. In 1996, stock-car racing great Richard Petty, the Republican nominee for secretary of state, was assumed to be a shoo-in. But Mr. Petty wore thin on voters as the campaign progressed, and Mrs. Marshall won with 53 percent of the vote.

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