Hunt or Helms: tough Senate choice; N. Carolinians like both moderate governor, leader of US New Right

To opponents, he's the congressional ''heavy'' who fought against a holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. and backed a rightist El Salvadorean leader alleged to be linked to death squads.

And he's the senator whose nationwide fund-raising network garnered more than

But to his supporters back home in North Carolina Jesse Helms belied his tough guy image as he drove around North Carolina aboard a green-and-white camper that he dubbed ''Avocado One.'' Stumping for a third term during the last days of the most closely watched US Senate race in the country, the leader of the Republican far right was affable, jocular, and even self-effacing.

''Hi, I'm Jesse Helms - what's left of me,'' he told an elderly woman who was ushered to his side after a rally.

With a slightly rumpled suit hanging onto his tall, lanky frame, Senator Helms delivered informal, folksy talks. ''If you think I'm an awkward candidate now, you should have seen me 12 years ago,'' he said to supporters gathered at an elementary school in High Point.

The prestige of the national New Right and antiabortion movements rides on the reelection of Jesse Helms. ''I'm sort of a symbol,'' he said last week between campaign stops. ''If they can knock me off, they figure they can discourage other conservatives from running.''

By ''they,'' Helms clearly means liberals and Democrats who are hoping to see him toppled next Tuesday. Until recent weeks, ''they'' were winning, as polls showed Helms dropping behind his challenger, Gov. James B. Hunt, a moderate Democrat and standard-bearer for the progressive New South. But as election day nears, surveys show them almost even.

Despite the high stakes, Helms maintained an almost casual air during carefully orchestrated campaign stops among friendly crowds. ''If I win, fine, '' he told a well-wisher at the High Point stop. ''If I lose the election, I get to come home to North Carolina and see my grandchildren, and that's fine.''

That tenor contrasts sharply with the intense determination in the Hunt camp. ''If Jesse Helms is successful,'' warned the governor last week in Charlotte, ''I think you're going to see that radical right wing move to take over the national Republican Party. And then ... I think you're going to see these people move to try to take over this country.''

Governor Hunt and his supporters, who have raised more than $8 million with help from out-of-state groups, describe next week's election in almost apocalyptic terms.

''I feel that this is one of the most crucial elections of my lifetime,'' said Democratic State Sen. Helen Marvin, a Hunt campaign official. ''I can see this country reverting to the same sort of climate that existed'' during the communist scares of this century and during the ''social Darwinism of the 1890 s.''

''I don't think I am overreacting,'' said Mr. Marvin, adding that reelecting Helms and President Reagan, who are both abortion foes, could mean ''intrusion of government into private lives.''

At a picnic in the Carolina piedmont town of Dallas, the governor delivered an admonition to several hundred Democratic faithful. ''On Nov. 6 of this year, North Carolina will send a message across this land about what kind of state we are,'' he said, speaking in the cadence of a Southern preacher.

''Cast a vote that you will be proud of,'' said Mr. Hunt, arguing that he stands for progress in jobs and education, while his opponent plays on ''fear and prejudice'' and has the program of the Moral Majority as his top priority.

Even the two candidates' campaign methods are at odds. The Helms campaign almost mirrors President Reagan's. For a year and a half, the senator has let controlled television messages do most of his campaigning. While Hunt has criss-crossed the state shaking hands on assembly lines and at senior-citizen centers, Helms has limited his personal appearances, rarely venturing beyond meetings with supporters.

In fact, South Carolina's Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) has given one town more time than its own senator. Senator Thurmond recently traveled to Burlington for a fund-raising dinner on Helms's behalf, although the North Carolinian hadn't visited the town for a year.

But when Helms finally did arrive in Burlington last week for a brief visit, his loyal backers appeared more than satisfied.

''I'm the late Jesse Helms,'' joked the candidate, as he arrived tardily for a rally last week. The lunch-hour crowd, jammed in a stifling Republican headquarters, laughed appreciatively.

He laid out the themes of his campaign in a modulated voice, hinting of his earlier work as a television commentator. ''Now I am a little bit irritated with some of the garbage that's being printed and broadcast and circulated by those with leftist leanings - that we must not have religion in our public life,'' said the senator. ''Well, you try to tell that to the Founding Fathers.''

He wrapped himself in the mantle of President Reagan, whose overwhelming popularity in North Carolinia could provide Helms a victory margin. ''I was sitting about 15 feet from Ronald Reagan when he held up his hand and took the oath of office,'' recalled Helms, ticking off the economic improvements since then.

And he missed no opportunity to tie Governor Hunt to Democratic presidential nominee Walter F. Mondale, joking that a squeaky microphone ''must be a Mondale-Hunt sound system.''

For the Helms fans who came to hear him, however, the speech was secondary. They waited patiently to meet him individually and shake his hand. Children surrounded him, as they generally do on the campaign trail, and he rewarded them with personalized autographs, after inquiring how to spell each name.

For most voters in North Carolina, however, the images of the two candidates have been formed through television and news reports and their long records in office.

Hunt is known as the hard-working governor who has brought new industry, school improvements, and more state appointments for blacks. Helms is seen as the gutsy fighter who will take on the entire US Senate and the White House.

Helms has capitalized on his hard-line positions, especially his crusade against a federal holiday for slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. That stand has been credited for his comeback in the polls. In a series of ads asking, ''Where do you stand, Jim?'' the senator has systematically attacked the moderate Hunt as wishy-washy on issues from taxes to school prayer

Some voters say they are made uneasy or embarrassed by Helms. But he touches a chord among many independent-minded North Carolinians. ''They see Helms as the type of person who stands for what he believes in,'' said state Senator Marvin. ''North Carolinians have always done that.''

Helms ''does not hesitate to take a position, and I think that's important,'' said F. Scott Key Jr., an industrial engineer in Gastonia who went to college with Hunt but was still undecided about the Senate race. ''Of course, Jim has had a lot of experience in government.''

Mr. Key, like thousands of North Carolinians, has voted for both men in the past and must now make the choice between them. ''I may not decide till the day of the election,'' he said.

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