STATESVILLE, N.C. -- David Parker, the Iredell County Democratic chairman, concedes that the television commercials Republican Sen. Jesse Helms is using against Harvey Gantt this fall are "brilliant" political tools. But he adds: "I get the feeling he's preaching to the choir."
This question is a critical one in the contest here between Helms and Democrat Gantt, the black former mayor of Charlotte. Everyone knows that Jesse Helms can whip up his conservative partisans by railing about Ted Kennedy and the perfidy of liberals but whether he once again can expand his core of followers into a majority of the North Carolina electorate is another matter.
There is nothing subtle about the Helms message. The commercials assail Gantt on such issues as abortion, the defense budget and capital punishment, then conclude with a picture of Helms and the legend "North Carolina values" juxtaposed against a picture of Gantt and the words "liberal values" while the voice-over reminds viewers that Gantt is not just liberal but "extremely" so.
The theme is not markedly different from those Helms has used in previous campaigns. But Gantt remains convinced that the voters are less interested in ideological labeling than in jobs, education, the environment and health care -- what Gantt calls "the big issues, not the peripheral issues." The theme that he is a dangerous liberal, Gantt told a party audience in Durham the other day, "is designed to scare people. We're not going to pay any attention to that. We're going to keep on keeping on."
Helms may have gone too far with one spot showing a woman accusing Gantt of advocating abortion in the final weeks of a pregnancy, which is forbidden under the state law Gantt supports except in cases in which a pregnancy "threatens the life or gravely impairs" the health of the woman.
The controversy over the Helms spot has crystallized Gantt's identification as the abortion rights alternative in the race. And, says Gantt, abortion is "the one hot button issue we can win on" -- meaning one social issue, unlike the death penalty, on which a majority of voters agree with him.
The central variable in the contest is, of course, whether a black candidate can capture enough white votes here to win. The history of L. Douglas Wilder in the Virginia gubernatorial election last year suggests it is possible; the performance of Andrew Young in the Georgia gubernatorial primary this year shows how difficult it can be. But the fact is that neither of those two precedents is a precise match for the situation here.
Gantt says that polling for his campaign shows him winning "close to 40 percent of the white vote" -- enough to elect him if, as expected, blacks vote solidly for him and turn out in disproportionately large numbers. But there is always a question about how honestly whites respond to questions about black candidates.
The key segment of the electorate is probably the 10 to 15 percent of the voters who now describe themselves as undecided. Many of them are newcomers to the state who live in and around Charlotte and Raleigh and already know something about Helms, for better or for worse, but not much about Gantt.
Gantt's strategy is to reach those voters and working-class Democrats by insisting that the time has come to reorder their priorities. "What he wants to do is push Harvey Gantt off the radar screen because he doesn't support the death penalty," Gantt says. "He's not going to be able to do that . . . The Cold War is over, and there is some meaning in that for the Democratic Party."
At events like the Iredell County Democratic barbecue here, Gantt finds a receptive audience of blacks and whites who seem to agree that the time has come to talk about something other than conservative bugaboos. His listeners applaud enthusiastically when he says Helms "insults the intelligence of North Carolina voters." And they laugh appreciatively when he concedes that a lot of people here who "have never voted for somebody who looks like me" and even more appreciatively at a newspaper report on an elderly Democrat who admitted to being a little racist but found Gantt "a brainy [expletive]" whom he could support.
Gantt may be kidding himself. This is the stage of a campaign in which all things seem possible. But it shouldn't be forgotten that just a year ago at this time almost no one believed Wilder could become governor of Virginia.