Big contest could come in '84; North Carolina: GOP bright spot?

A probe along this state's nearly 700 miles - from Cape Hatteras and Pamlico Sound, past the new midstate industrial arteries stretching from Greensboro to Charlotte to the base of the Great Smokies - offers a unique sampling of current and coming political trends.

North Carolina this fall has no open Senate or governor's seat. But a 1984 Senate race, with ramifications for the country's ideological and presidential directions, is already taking shape. The outcome of a set of House races this November could tell:

* Whether the Republican Southern tide is continuing to rise.

* Whether the political clout of conservative spokesman Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina - and his fund-raising enterprise, the Congressional Club - continues as a major force.

* How the state's Governor, Jim Hunt, will emerge from the dust and din of this November's North Carolina House races to take on Senator Helms in a Senate showdown for 1984 - a prospect that liberal and conservative partisans nationwide are already labelling ''the race of the century.''

* Whether the political strategy behind the Republicans' 1980 successes, featuring money and media, can overpower the traditional organizational strength wielded by Southern Democrat Hunt.

Republicans insist North Carolina offers Reaganites their best hope of reversing the general rule that a president loses seats in midterm elections.

''North Carolina is the brightest spot for Republicans in '82,'' says Richard Richards, Republican National Committee Chairman. ''We have excellent condidates. We have lots of dough down there. They're really building (the Republican party) down there. We'll make greater gains in North Carolina than in any state in the nation.''

''I think we'll win three seats, maybe five,'' asserts David G. Flaherty, executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party. ''If we win two or three House seats, Hunt isn't going to think of running against Jesse Helms in ' 84.''

GOP planners think North Carolina incumbent Democratic Representatives Ike Andrews, Bill Hefner, Stephen Neal, and Charles Whitley offer the best targets. The Democrats think they can possibly win Rep. Bill Hendon's 11th District seat or Eugene Johnston's 6th District seat, to break even if they lose Mr. Andrew's seat.

Governor Hunt declined to take any direct responsiblity for the outcome of House races in his state. ''My organization is not running any of these campaigns,'' Hunt says. ''They're not running the same kind of campaign we run, they're not raising the kind of money we raise.''

North Carolina political observers, however, say that Hunt's political organization - rated the best in the state's history - is deeply involved in the House races.

''The two forces in North Carolina politics are Jim Hunt, the governor, and Jesse Helms in the Senate,'' says Oliver Williams, North Carolina State University political expert. ''They're building up for a head-on fight in November. It's a clash between two styles.'' He points out that the Hunt organization has unusual ability to identify blocks of voters and get them to the polls. The Helms approach is much more through TV, based on advertising.

Helms, buffeted by recent setbacks in the Senate for his pet issues of abortion and school prayer, wants Republicans to gains seats in North Carolina to sustain the credibility of his conservative cause, and his own presidential prospects.

The White House very much wants gains in North Carolina to offset likely Republican House losses in the South, and, psychologically, at least, to help stretch Reagan's conservative mandate into the next Congress.

Reagan is still popular in North Carolina, a state he took from Jimmy Carter in 1980. None of the Democrats here are running against Reagan the man. They talk about unemployment instead, the effects of Reagan's policies.

''There's a disappointment about the recession we're in, the unemployment,'' says Hunt. ''The people want to make some changes. The people of this state believe there has in the past been some overspending and overregulating, and I agree with that.

But, he adds, ''They don't see the economic program working yet. They'd like to get more of a Democratic 'thrust' into the economy now.''

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