In state that cherishes the 'right' things, Helms knew which voters were his

November 08, 1990|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff Correspondent

RALEIGH, N.C. -- For anyone wondering how Sen. Jesse Helms won re-election so easily here on Tuesday, there was a clue found recently on a Civil War battleground at Cold Harbor, Va.

There in a sunken trench were the bones, buttons and belt buckle of a North Carolina Confederate who fell dead to a Yankee bullet in 1864. Two weeks ago his remains were brought home in a white pine coffin that lay in state for a weekend in the Capitol rotunda here.

In a way, you might say, the soldier was a lot like Mr. Helms: gone north to fight against overwhelming odds for traditions and values that were vanishing in other parts of the country. The honors the late soldier's bones were accorded more than a century later help explain Mr. Helms' enduring appeal among the older, white and less-educated voters of this state.

Those were the people who kept Mr. Helms in office Tuesday, giving him 53 percent of the vote against former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt. Exit polls by Voter Research and Surveys showed that whites favored Mr. Helms by 65 to 35 percent. Voters older than 45 favored him by 58 percent to 42 percent, and voters with only a high school education or less favored him 61 percent to 39 percent.

Mr. Helms also fared far better among people who have lived in North Carolina all their lives than he did among newcomers.

It is those groups of voters who were especially receptive to Mr. Helms' appeals to "traditional North Carolina values," analysts say, as opposed to the unabashed liberalism of Mr. Gantt, who focused on the issues of education and the environment.

But among younger voters, ages 18 to 29, the tide has already turned against Mr. Helms. They voted against him 54 percent to 46 percent.

This is the sort of shift that prompts analysts to see an apt symbol in all the recent reverence for the long-dead soldier. "The trend of the younger voters moving toward Gantt is indicative of the fact that the Civil War has finally been put to rest among that group," said Thad Beyle, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina. "The older those people are, the closer they are to the grandparents and great-grandparents who may have had some link to the Civil War, where there was still a lot of bitterness."

What, then, are the "traditional values" that attract such voters to Mr. Helms? "It means stability of the family and the traditional roles for husband and wife," said North Carolina State University political scientist Abraham Holtzman. "It means going to church, kids obeying their parents and reading the 'right' things, like the Bible and sweet stories and things like that. . . . And abortion, that's something you just don't do, at least not if you're a 'decent' girl."

The sort of values, in short, that Mr. Helms accuses the "liberal establishment" of sneering at.

There is also a racial message implicit when one preaches in favor of old-time tradition in the South, Mr. Beyle said, and that message sounded loudly in certain ads directed against Mr. Gantt, who was seeking to become the South's first black senator since Reconstruction.

"It [Mr. Helms' message] seems to translate out to a social structure we have had here in the past, with racial separation," he said. He said that Mr. Helms' ads decrying racial quotas in hiring practices "had beneath them the message to white voters that blacks are getting something that you can't get."

Another of Mr. Helms' late appeals -- an accusation that Mr. Gantt was running a "secret campaign" to win support among gay voters -- also played to the fears of the voters who helped put Mr. Helmsover the top, analysts said. "Those are the kinds of shock things that make people say, 'My God, what is happening? What are the kids reading?' " Mr. Holtzman said.

Although the tactics brought home votes among older whites -- particularly among those who made up their minds in the last week of the campaign, according to exit polls -- they also created dismay among blacks, who already mistrusted Mr. Helms for having virtually ignored issues important to them during his previous three terms.

An older black man watching election returns at state Democratic Party headquarters Tuesday night shook his head slowly as Mr. Gantt fell further and further behind. "It may be 1990, but it sure looks a lot like 1940," he said.

But it was Mr. Helms who had the last word on the subject as he claimed victory before his supporters an hour later. "There has been a multitude of upturned noses in this campaign as you and I have spoken of North Carolina values," he said. "There has tTC been the pretense that our adversaries did not understand what we were talking about. Well, maybe now they understand."

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