At the bitter end, voters return Helms to office

November 07, 1990|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff Correspondent

RALEIGH, N.C. — RALEIGH, N.C.-- A few days ago, in the heat of a rigorous campaign, Sen. Jesse Helms declared that God was on his side. He also had $16 million, a black opponent in a mostly white state, and a knack for jabbing political erogenous zones with the sharp stick of negative advertising.

Yesterday the voters of North Carolina decided that the combination was a winner, and returned Mr. Helms to the Senate for a fourth term over former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt by a surprisingly comfortable margin.

With 88 percent of the votes reported, Mr. Helms led by 54 percent to 46 percent (925,087 -- 800,941) -- twice the margin of his last victory in 1984 -- and by 11:45 p.m. he was gloating to his cheering supporters and taunting his opposition.

"Well, there is no joy in Mudville tonight," he said with a wide grin. "The mighty, ultra-liberal establishment -- the liberal politicians and editors and commentators and columnists -- have struck out again."

Mr. Helms said he would have come to he podium earlier, "but I've been at home watching the grieving face of Dan Rather."

Five minutes later, Mr. Gantt strolled out to greet his supporters, striking a conciliatory note and calling for unity in the state.

But he stopped short of conceding defeat. "Let's wait and see what the end's going to be, and hope that tomorrow is going to be a better day in North Carolina."

He had hoped to become the South's first black senator since Reconstruction, and for much of the campaign he seemed to set the tone, contrasting his liberalism to Mr. Helms' arch conservatism on educational and environmental issues.

The tactic seemed to be working, and polls showed Mr. Gantt moving from distant underdog to a chance to win. Voters were left with a choice of candidates whose stands on the issues were as different as black and white. But in the final days of the campaign Mr. Helms began focusing on the literal sense of their black-white differences.

One Helms television ad showed a white man's hand crumpling a job rejection notice while a voice said, "You needed that job, and you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. Is that really fair? Harvey Gantt says it is."

Adding to this atmosphere were 150,000 "voter information" postcards mailed last week by the state Republican Party to voters in predominantly black districts. The postcard warned that anyone who had changed their address within the last 30 days could be subject to fines and jail if they tried to vote. Further scrutiny of the tactic showed that among racially mixed married couples, black spouses received the postcard and whites did not. The U.S. Justice Department deemed the tactic an attempt to intimidate voters.

Even if race had not become an issue, there were already plenty of marked differences to choose from. Mr. Helms has reflected the moral conscience of right-wing Republicans, advocating school prayer, opposing abortion and favoring virtually any defense appropriation while opposing virtually any money for foreign aid. Mr. Gantt unabashedly proclaimed himself a liberal, saying it is up to government to clean up the environment, reduce poverty and improve schools.

Those sorts of contrasts sparked vehement emotion on both sides, and those caught in the middle found themselves weary of the battle by Election Day.

Robert Brown, an insurance salesman who said yesterday morning that he still hadn't decided whom to vote for, said, "I don't even talk about it anymore with my friends. It always ends in an argument, and it always gets too emotional."

Mr. Brown said he disagrees with Mr. Helms "on a lot of things. I don't think he's done a good job on the environment, or on education, and I believe a woman should have a right to choose on abortion. But I still can understand why people like him. He has traditional values, and those still go a long way, especially with people who are religious."

He said he grew tired of the negative advertising, but Mr. Helms' ad on minority job quotas seemed to have struck a chord with him. "Where I work, there's no problem with anyone being treated unfairly [because of being a minority.] If anything, there have been a few times when I feel like I've gotten the short end of the stick."

But Mr. Helms and his tactics turned some would-be supporters against him. Phil Elmstrom, a real estate agent, said, "I've voted Republican for 15 years, but I'll be damned if I'll vote for Jesse Helms."

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