JACKSONVILLE,N.C. — JACKSONVILLE, N.C. -- When Harvey Gantt strode up for a reception at a local motel here the other day, the cluster of newsmen outside was nearly as large as the group of supporters waiting inside.
Reporters are being drawn to North Carolina by the most
irresistible story line of this election year:
the possibility that Jesse Helms, the most conservative member of the Senate, an old bull of the Old South who resisted the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, might be retired by Mr. Gantt, a product of the New South, a former two-term mayor of Charlotte who happens to be black.
For months, the candidates have remained locked in a dead heat, according to numerous polls. Those numbers have surprised and delighted Democrats. And even Republican campaign officials in Washington claim that Mr. Helms, unable to ride a popular Republican president's coattails as he did in his 1984 re-election, could well lose this time.
"Truth be known, I believe we're ahead," Mr. Gantt, 47, tells backers.
But others see the contest differently. As one middle-aged Charlotte man recently told a friend: "If David
Duke can get 44 percent against a white guy, Jesse can sure get 51 percent against a black guy."
Many North Carolinians, proud of their state's progressive tradition, reject the comparison with Louisiana, but a political consultant advising another Democrat in the state believes the white racist vote is an insurmountable barrier for Mr. Gantt.
"A lot of Democrats and independents who don't like Helms don't dislike him enough to vote for a black guy for senator," the consultant says.
A liberal, Mr. Gantt is calling for improving education, cleaning up the environment and providing affordable health care, issues of concern to the white, largely suburban swing voters who inhabit the Interstate 85 corridor that links the major population centers of Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh-Durham.
But Mr. Gantt has refused to abandon his liberal base, and some of his remarks have given Mr. Helms an opening to drive a wedge through the electorate on social values. One Democratic strategist who supports the Gantt campaign grudgingly praises the Helms ads as a textbook model of a negative campaign.
"They could teach a clinic with those things," he said.
In the Helms spots, Mr. Gantt comes under fire as a "slick-talking" liberal who opposes the death pen
alty and is soft on drug abusers while favoring large cuts in military spending and higher taxes.
In what Gantt aides call a distortion of their candidate's statements, several Helms ads accuse the Democrat of lying about everything from abortion and taxes to the senator's record in Washington.
"Harvey Gantt, extremely liberal with the facts," the ads conclude.
Some Helms ads feature film clips of Mr. Gantt or his campaign manager, who is also black. Critics see this as a subtly racist reminder to white
voters about the stakes of the November election.
Mr. Helms and the Republicans are also attacking Mr. Gantt's financial support from artists and homosexual groups from around the country who would like to defeat the senator as retribution for his well-publicized opposition to gay rights and federal financing of the arts.
Undaunted, Mr. Gantt refuses to distance himself from his more controversial backers. He told a news conference the other day in Jacksonville, in the more conservative eastern part of the state, that he welcomes the support of "all kinds of people: women, men, rich folks, poor folks, black folks, white folks, gays, lesbians, straight folks, women activists, Americans, North JTC Carolinians."
But the Helms ads appear to have damaged Mr. Gantt's image and raised questions among voters.
"We don't know him," Julene McPhail, a Raleigh matron, said over lunch at the Raleigh Women's Club the other day. A `D Democrat, Mrs. McPhail says she has "reservations"
about the election of Mr. Gantt.
"It would open some doors," she said. "I'm afraid we're not ready for that yet."
A new poll by Mason-Dixon Opinion Research of Columbia, released late last week, found that the number of North Carolinians with an unfavorable view of Mr. Gantt had jumped from 14 percent of the electorate in August to 32 percent.
More ominous for the Democratic contender was the finding that most undecided voters are white and male, groups that tend to favor Mr. Helms. When the undecideds were asked who they thought would win the election, they predicted Mr. Helms by a margin of 14-to-1.
"The hidden Helms voters tend to be middle- or upper-middle income voters who don't want to admit that race is a factor in their vote," said Brad Coker, president of Mason-Dixon, who said his latest findings indicate that the contest may be beginning to break in favor of the senator.
In an interview, Mr. Gantt said he rejected the advice of strategists who urged him to tailor his message to the more moderate-to-conservative views of swing voters.