Tuesday, April 13, 2004

A North Carolina newspaper meant to chastise Republican Vernon Robinson when it declared: “Jesse Helms is back! This time, he’s black.”

Now that quote has become Mr. Robinson’s campaign slogan as he battles seven other 5th District congressional candidates in the July 20 Republican primary.

The Helms name is powerful among North Carolina Republicans, and even if the retired conservative senator is actually supporting one of Mr. Robinson’s rivals, being dubbed “the black Jesse Helms” is a big boost for a candidate in a district where 88 percent of residents are white and most vote Republican.

In the contest to succeed Republican Rep. Richard M. Burr — who is running for the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Democrat Sen. John Edwards — winning the Republican primary is tantamount to election. President Bush carried the 5th District by a 2-to-1 margin over Democrat Al Gore in 2000, and Mr. Burr was re-elected with 70 percent of the vote in 2002.

That has turned the 5th District primary campaign into a heated and increasingly nasty fight.

Like most of the other Republican candidates, Mr. Robinson is running as a staunch conservative. The two-term Winston-Salem city councilman and Air Force Academy graduate’s brochures cite praise from such nationally known Republicans as former Georgia Rep. Bob Barr, former New York Sen. Jack Kemp and Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, as well as Focus on the Family founder James Dobson and conservative commentator Pat Buchanan.

In brochures and direct mail solicitations, Mr. Robinson is shown in photos with Mr. Helms, North Carolina’s five-term Republican senator.

But Mr. Helms, 82, is co-chairman of businessman Ed Broyhill’s campaign. Considered the moderate in the field, Mr. Broyhill also is leading in the polls.

Mr. Broyhill, whose father, Jim, spent nearly 24 years in Congress, has his own endorsements, including former President Gerald Ford, Louisiana Rep. Billy Tauzin and former North Carolina Sen. Lauch Faircloth.

What’s more, Mr. Broyhill says he is closer than Mr. Robinson is to Mr. Kemp, long-time hero of tax-cutting, pro-growth economic conservatives. In an interview, Mr. Broyhill emphasizes that his mother and Mr. Kemp’s wife “are very close” friends.

Nearly all the candidates are running as “Jesse Helms Republicans” because, Mr. Broyhill says, “This is a very conservative ‘guns and God’ district — the most Republican district in the entire South.”

Mr. Broyhill said he is running on “a more economics-driven agenda, without losing emphasis on family and faith.”

The eight-candidate Republican field also includes state Sen. Virginia Fox, who locals say has as good a chance as any of the other hopefuls, and a 30-year-old businessman, Nathan Tabor, who is backed by many of the 5th District’s 3,500 families who home-school their children.

In the publicity primary, however, Mr. Robinson is clearly the leader. He has been featured on Fox News Channel and has been almost ubiquitous at conservative banquets, lectures and fund-raising events as far away from his district as Washington and New York.

Locally, Mr. Robinson made headlines when he paid $2,000 from his own pocket to install a Ten Commandments monument at the Winston-Salem City Hall. Authorities hauled it away the next day and Republican candidates criticized Mr. Robinson, with Mrs. Fox expressing doubt that such “grandstanding promotes the understanding of our heritage.”

Mr. Robinson has staked out a get-tough stance on immigration — a potential swing issue. North Carolina has the fastest-growing Hispanic population in the nation; the state’s Hispanic population increased nearly 400 percent in the last decade. President Bush has proposed a “guest worker” program for illegal immigrants, a position which Mr. Robinson disparages as an amnesty.

“I’m not for any kind of amnesty at any time for illegal aliens, and I am for strengthening our borders,” said Mr. Robinson, who noted his support from Mr. Tancredo, leader of the House Immigration Reform Caucus.

But Mr. Broyhill cedes no ground on the immigration issue. “I am against amnesty, for securing our borders and reforming the INS to improve homeland security,” he said.

Mr. Tabor criticizes Mr. Broyhill both for his business practices and his endorsement by a former Republican president. “Ford supports gay and lesbian marriages,” said Mr. Tabor, the 30-year-old head of a dietary supplement firm.

For his part, Mr. Tabor has endorsements from home-schooling leader Mike Farris, a prominent Christian conservative activist.

Mr. Tabor was apparently the target of a recent smear attempt when a fake e-mail from a fictitious pastor said Mr. Tabor would “be facing multiple charges in Wilkes County Criminal District Court today stemming from an incident several weeks ago.”

It turns out Mr. Tabor had been pulled over by a state trooper. “I got a speeding ticket,” he later explained. “I had an expired license … an oversight.”

Suspicion for the e-mail fell on the Robinson campaign, but Mr. Robinson says he had nothing to do with it. For his part, Mr. Robinson says Mr. Tabor “doesn’t believe in anything except narcissism. He never voted for Helms and never voted against Clinton.”

If no candidate gets at least 40 percent of the vote in the July primary, the top two finishers will face each other in an Aug. 17 runoff.

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