FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. -- Shelby Williams is, as he puts it, "a third-generation Carolinian and a lifelong Democrat." He thinks Sen. Jesse Helms is "a big bag of wind."
But if you press him on whether he intends to vote for Democrat Harvey Gantt, he becomes uneasy and begins to sweat in the chill sundown air. "Well," he says, "I always make up my mind at the last minute, and I haven't decided yet. It's a big step."
Because Gantt is a black man? "Well," says Shelby Williams, "there is that."
Indeed there is. Coming to the wire, the campaign for the Senate here this year, arguably the most intriguing of 1990 politics, is looking more and more like the campaign for governor of Virginia last year. If he had been white, L. Douglas Wilder would have won that one by 20 points; instead, he squeaked in by 1 percent.
If Harvey Gantt were white, the referee would have stopped this one. As it is, if Gantt wins, it will be a squeaker. If he doesn't, the only reasonable explanation will be that there is indeed some impossible-to-quantify number of whites who cannot bring themselves to vote for a black candidate.
This reality may seem so obvious that it doesn't require repeating. But Americans, including political analysts, don't want believe race is still such a barrier in politics. So we tend to try to view the contest between Helms and Gantt in conventional terms -- as a confrontation between conservative and liberal, as a test of the skills of the candidates and consultants, as a product of conflicting strategies. But anyone who argues that race is not the decisive factor is blinking at the truth.
Gantt may yet win it. He has raised enough money to compete evenly or better on television in the last weeks of the campaign. He has kept his cool under the withering fire of the Helms campaign. He has lighted some fires among college students as well as black voters. He has been talking about the issues -- education, the economy, the environment -- that have moved to the top of the national agenda since the end of the Cold War. His support for abortion rights has the potential for giving him the 2 or 3 percent that could be crucial.
And if the Gantt appeal can raise the black vote to 22 percent of the total vote next Tuesday -- a realistic goal in a state where blacks make up 19 percent of the voting age population -- he can win with only 37 to 38 percent of the white vote, several points below what the most recent polls show him getting.
But Jesse Helms, the recognized master of attack politics, is not going to go quietly. He is running television commercials that describe Gantt's "secret" campaign -- the Democrat's fund-raising among homosexuals. Frightening images of gay night life flicker briefly on the screen. The message is what it has been all along: Jesse Helms represents "North Carolina values" and "family values;" Harvey Gantt is "dangerously liberal -- too liberal for North Carolina."
Helms himself plays a tape of a Gantt commercial running on black-oriented radio stations urging blacks to vote. It is proof, says the Republican senator, that Gantt is the one "injecting the race issue" into the campaign. A Helms radio spot tells listeners that this Gantt appeal is one of the "secret" tactics of his campaign that the "liberal" newspapers of the state do not report.
The late Helms assault is not likely to win him many new supporters at a time when so many potential voters are reacting against negative politics. But it does have the potential for energizing the culturally conservative voters that have been the Helms base all along. He doesn't have a George McGovern or Walter Mondale to use as a whipping boy. But he does have a masterful media campaign.
Some Democrats are convinced Helms is going to the well once too often with this approach. "The biggest thing that has happened," says consultant Gary Pearce, "is that people are getting tired of Helms. The act has gotten stale." Also, he says, Helms doesn't have the benefit of running with Ronald Reagan.
The context of 1990 is far more hospitable to a Democrat like Gantt than to a throwback Republican still ranting and raving about Ted Kennedy and dirty pictures. And North Carolina is becoming increasingly urban and politically sophisticated.
But Shelby Williams is not the only Carolinian for whom it is a "big step" to vote for a black man.