Helms race overshadows Carolina primary

North Carolinians are embroiled in one of the hottest primary elections of the year. Political posters for six major candidates for governor clutter the street corners. Pine trees along the North Carolina roadways almost disappear behind cardboard signs nailed up and down their trunks.

The airwaves are jammed with messages to the voters, including the continuing drumbeat of TV ads for Jesse Helms, the state's Republican senator, whose real contest isn't until next fall.

But in all the election hoopla is rarely a hint that on May 8 North Carolina will also vote for a Democratic nominee for president in the last big presidential primary in the South. Only Mississippi will be left.

Except for supporters of the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, voters in North Carolina are undecided and decidedly uninterested in the election just days away. Such an uncertain mood opens the door for either Walter F. Mondale or Sen. Gary Hart to take a majority of the 75 delegates at stake here. (The state will also send 13 unpledged delegates to the Democratic convention, bringing the total to 88.)

But it also gives little comfort to the Democratic party, because none of its candidates have stirred widespread enthusiasm in North Carolina yet. This conservative state, which four years ago chose Ronald Reagan over Southerner Jimmy Carter by a slim margin, now looks like Reagan country.

I'll probably vote for Hart, says Danny Crocker, an employee at Raleigh's light and power company. He is, like three-fourths of the state's voters, a Democrat. ''But I prefer Ronald Reagan,'' he adds. The sentiment was repeated many times in interviews with voters.

One secretary said that she prefers Mr. Reagan but maintains that she will vote for Mr. Jackson in the Democratic primary. Why? ''Because I don't think he can win [against Reagan],'' says Jewell Senter, who works at a Raleigh accounting firm.

The campaign of Colorado's Senator Hart holds out hope for wooing the independent-minded and conservative North Carolinians.

Although the state is heavily dependent on manufacturing furniture, clothing, and tobacco products, only about 6 percent of the work force is unionized. Former Vice-President Mondale, whose labor backing has boosted him in the Midwest, can expect little help here.

So Mr. Hart, an opponent of such labor union standbys as bailout for failing industries, appeals to some conservative voters here.

His campaign has labeled the state ''winnable,'' although in a stopover last week the candidate was cautious. ''If we have a large turnout, I think we'll do well,'' he said, without defining ''well.''

The site for Hart's statement was appropriate for his ''new ideas's candidacy. He visited Research Triangle Park in the Raleigh-Durham area, an expansive showplace of high-technology laboratories and industries. But the workers at this landmark of the progressive New South gave mixed responses to Hart.

''I'm one of the few'' who backs Hart, said Darrell Congleton, a technician at Troxle Electronics Laboratories, as the candidate arrived on his tour. Most of his fellow workers support Reagan, he said.

That included the candidate's tour guide, company engineer Ralph Ely, who explained the operations to Hart. ''I'm a Reagan man,'' Mr. Ely had confided earlier.

Only hours before the Hart foray, Mondale also visited the Research Triangle. He reminded the small crowd that this visit was one of many to their state. ''I think I know this state well,'' he said. ''You know me, and I know you.''

But such familiarity has not secured widespread support for Mondale in the state.

''I think Hart may have a better chance of beating Reagan in the fall,'' says a Mondale supporter, Frank Sheffield, an executive at Radian Corporation, an environmental research company.

''Mondale is kind of dull, but I feel he's capable,'' says Mr. Sheffield, who serves as mayor of the small town of Hillsborough.

William Shor, a co-worker at the research firm, says he had been leaning toward Reagan. ''I'm kind of sitting on the fence,'' he says. ''I was impressed with Mondaly today. He comes across much better one on one than on television.''

James D. Margolis, state director for the Mondale effort in North Carolina, concludes, ''My sense is there's just not been a whole lot of attention and focus'' on the campaign.

The one candidate who has generated enthusiasm is Jackson. He plans a series of events just before the election, including a rally at the state fairgounds where backers hope to attract 10,000 people on May 6.

''There's a great deal of expectancy all over the country for Jesse doing very well in North Carolina,'' said Walter E. Fauntroy, the District of Columbia's congressional delegate and the chief issues official in the Jackson campaign.

Exactly how well could be determined by how many black voters turn out May 8. The state has a black registration of about 20 percent, which is up by 77,000 since last October.

That figure, however, is far short of the 200,000 that black leaders hope to register by next November in a state that has about half a million unregistered blacks.

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