Raleigh, N.C. --HARVEY GANTT was looking out his Holiday Inn window when he heard the siren-blasting presidential motorcade sweep past.
Riding in the limo beside George Bush, wearing a Cheshire-Cat grin, was the man Gantt hopes to upset in four weeks, Sen. Jesse Helms.
A classic moment: The political outsider watching the entrenched insider roll past with all the trappings of pomp and power.
Harvey Gantt was more wryly bemused than bitter.
"I'm delighted to be in the same town with Helms," he said. "That's as close as I've been to him. Instead of having President Bush defend him, I wish Helms would come out and speak for himself."
Yep, it's a curiously unreal election. No debates. In fact, Helms Helms and Gantt have never met personally. So the 68-year-old champ throws bombs by television ads while Gantt scurries around North Carolina, jabbing for an opening.
They campaign not only in different ZIP codes but different worlds. The year Harvey Gannt entered Clemson as its first black student, Jesse Helms was tasting fame ranting on Raleigh TV against civil rights.
So no matter how courteous North Carolinians repress the fact, the heart of the Helms-Gantt contest is race.
True, this is a peculiarly polite state. Unlike the Deep South or neighboring South Carolina, it has never had truck with race-baiting demagogues. Even Helms, whose slurs against Martin Luther King Jr. verged on racism, has a courtly style; a sort of George Wallace with manners.
Behind the polite facade, though, one gut fact sticks in this election's craw: If Harvey Gantt is going to Washington as the first black U.S. senator in almost two decades, he must get 40 percent of North Carolina's white votes.
So on the day Helms was a passenger in Bush's limo, Harvey Gantt went campagning behind the porticoes of the Raleigh Women's Club. The ambiance was upper-class South: rose-speckled wallpaper, plush carpets, sugary iced tea, well-coiffed matrons.
Gantt, an amiable, 47-year-old with salt-and-pepper hair, did a smart thing. He simply told these affluent suburbanites his story.
"I grew up in public housing in Charleston," he said. "My dad, a dockworker, raised five children. Sometimes he had to work three jobs. But he was proud of America, proud of us. All five of us, thanks to grants and scholarships, went to college."
Gantt, an architect who became three-term mayor of Charlotte, drew a moral: "Hard work, education and a government that cares can make life better."
Then Gantt hit his message. Jesse Helms' time has gone. North Carolina, despite its progressive aura, has slipped -- near the bottom in SAT scores, infant mortality, homes without proper sanitation. Time to put the Pentagon money into education, environment and health.
That's Gantt's style -- non-threatening, the cool, pleasant professional. Gantt has no sharp edges. He's a black man running in a state that voted solidly for Nixon, Reagan and Bush.
"It's possible for a black to win now in the South," says University of Virginia political expert Larry Sabato, "but it's never likely."
Sure, there are 5,000 elected black officials in Southern and border states. But only Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder has won statewide office. Gantt's rooters picture him repeating Wilder's breakthrough. They're progressive, pro-abortion candidates who even look alike.
But skeptics suspect Gantt will be another Andrew Young, who ran the same low-key campaign for Georgia governor, courting white voters. And got crushed.
Helms, who may have realized his nightmare of competing against a strong black challenger, never directly mentions race. Instead, his ads and literature paint Gantt as a far-out, lefty oddball, a naive tool of gays, Yankee liberals and Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition.
"I know he's not running his own campaign," Helms told Knight-Ridder reporters. "He's being run by the abortion-rights league, homosexuals, labor unions, people like that."
Will Helms' 18-year faithful -- Tarboro tobacco farmers, Kannapolis textile workers, fundamentalists in white-frame churches -- desert Jesse to gamble on a black man who vows to makes lives better?
Sure, Gantt is neck-and-neck with Helms in polls. (But black candidates, even Wilder, slip a few points on Election Day.) Sure, Gantt gets warm applause from white audiences. But as a native, I'd be happily surprised if Gantt won.
In the end game, what counts is money, tradition, blood, fear and habits out of the grim past. Nobody plays those dark tunes better than Jesse Helms.