- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 10, 2002

Two Democrats are hoping low turnout will help one of them garner enough support to beat front-runner Erskine Bowles for their party's nomination as North Carolina voters narrow down a large primary field today to Democratic and Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate.

Secretary of State Elaine Marshall and state Rep. Dan Blue are both targeting Mr. Bowles, chief of staff to former President Bill Clinton, in the field of nine candidates, hoping to win a contest in which turnout is expected to be very light. In the Republican primary, Elizabeth Dole is expected to cruise to victory over six lesser-known candidates.

North Carolina is one of 12 states and the District of Columbia holding primaries today a sort of Super Tuesday without the unifying national presidential contest. National political party officials are looking to turnout numbers to gauge enthusiasm and predict turnout in November's general election.

Turnout will be a key to the North Carolina race. Officials pushed back the standard May primary because of a court challenge to legislative districts and canceled the usual run-off in the event no candidate gains more than 40 percent of the vote.

"We anticipate a very low turnout," said Keith Dinsmore, a spokesman for Mrs. Marshall, who said she has an advantage as the only candidate to hold statewide elected office. "We think that a small turnout probably helps Elaine because the traditional rank-and-file Democrats have voted for her two years ago and six years ago."

Pundits say Mr. Blue, meanwhile, could benefit in a low-turnout election as a black candidate in a race in which blacks could make up a third of Democratic primary voters.

But Susan Lagana, a spokeswoman for Mr. Bowles' campaign, said they are positioned where they need to be going into the primary, with a grass-roots organization in every locality.

A recent poll taken for two ABC News affiliates in North Carolina found 38 percent of voters favored Mr. Bowles, 26 percent supported Mr. Blue and 20 percent backed Mrs. Marshall, with the rest undecided or supporting other candidates.

On the Republican side, Mrs. Dole has continued to shore up her conservative credentials, wooing abortion opponents and picking up the endorsement of North Carolina Right to Life organization over the summer. She has consistently touted the backing of Sen. Jesse Helms, the Republican whose upcoming retirement is creating the vacancy.

"We feel good about what we're hearing from around the state. She has been working hard to get her message out, and voters across the state are responding to her message," said spokeswoman Mary Brown Brewer.

Her presumed closest rival is lawyer Jim Snyder, one of five other Republicans in the race, who says Mrs. Dole isn't conservative enough to deserve the nomination.

In head-to-head general election matchups, the television poll found Mrs. Dole topping all challengers. She holds a 10-point edge over Mr. Bowles, 52-42, she leads Mr. Blue 54-38 and tops Mrs. Marshall 55-37. But all of those are smaller than the 20-point lead she had in earlier polls.

One recent development is Mr. Bowles' turning to his personal bank account to fund his campaign. In the pre-primary report he filed through Aug. 21, he listed a $1.3 million loan to his campaign.

"Erskine has always said he was going to raise and spend enough money to communicate his message to the people of North Carolina," Miss Lagana said.

His primary opponents say he has had to spend the money this late in the race because his name recognition isn't where it should be.

"This campaign isn't about money; what really is going to matter at the end of the day is turnout and mobilizing our base," said Blue campaign manager Jill Harris.

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