HARVEY GANTT, the Democratic nominee for US Senate in North Carolina, is telling voters it is time to reject the ``hot button'' issues of flamboyant, arch-conservative Jesse Helms, his GOP opponent in the November general election. Mr. Gantt says he sees Senator Helms's favorite topics, including homosexuality, revolutionary movements abroad, and flag burning, as ``bogeymen,'' diverting residents from the real economic issues affecting their lives.
Gantt, founder of a successful architectural firm and a former mayor of Charlotte, N.C., is up against one tough campaigner.
During his three terms on Capitol Hill, Helms has developed a reputation as the most outspoken arch-conservative in the Senate and as a dogged campaigner who spares nothing to win. Containing dire warnings of threats to ``the American way of life,'' his frequent letters to conservatives throughout the country have built a huge following and a solid financial base.
Six years ago, the man who narrowly lost to Helms, former Gov. James Hunt, didn't challenge the senator directly on many issues. ``Hunt moderated his positions, which allowed Jesse to attack him on flipflopping,'' says Robert Dorff, a political science professor at North Carolina State University. ``I don't think you'll have that problem with Gantt.''
Avoiding `irrelevant' issues
Gantt's camp is taking the opposite tack. ``Our strategy is to stay away from irrelevant issues Jesse's likely to focus on,'' says Gantt campaign manager Melvin Watt.
During his primary campaign, Gantt told an audience that Helms is trying to identify himself as a ``moral arbiter'' of arts and sex, referring to Helms's role in the controversy surrounding grants issued by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Gantt continued, ``Maybe we ought to be talking about the real immoral acts that we contribute to: people sleeping on the streets and mothers having babies that don't have a chance, or the immorality of not doing what we can to provide the best public education system.''
North Carolina is a study in political contrasts. Its voters sent Helms to Washington three times; they also loved the late Sen. Sam Ervin, the country lawyer who became a legend for his defense of the Constitution during the Watergate hearings. And the state's junior senator is moderate Democrat and former governor Terry Sanford.
Helms races have been close: In 1984, he won by just 52 to 48. Political analysts say Helms has a solid core of about 45 percent of the vote; much of his strength comes from the politically dominant, largely rural `Down East' portion of the state. Even the Democrats there are known as ``Jessecrats.''
Another 45 to 48 percent, including urban progressives and blacks, unalterably oppose Helms. This brings the race down to just 7 to 10 percent of North Carolina voters.
Increasingly, the group up for grabs includes moderate Democrats, independents, and what Mr. Dorff calls ``business Republicans.'' Many of these moved to the state recently, live in suburbs, and work for high-technology companies in the so-called ``I-85 corridor'' stretching from Charlotte up to Durham and Raleigh. Although many of these people sympathize with traditional GOP positions, they do not follow the Helms line on social issues.
The lone black senator
If elected, Gantt would become the only black in the US Senate. He could benefit from a large Democratic, and particularly black, turnout. In the primary runoff this year, 25 percent of the Democrats turned out, far surpassing the predicted 12 to 15 percent.
An elegant, urbane man, Gantt is widely credited for Charlotte's growth as a major commercial center during his two terms as mayor. Many in the state view him as a spokesman for an increasingly sophisticated, politically moderate South.
Money will be critical, because candidates must cover numerous media markets. In the last election, Helms and Mr. Hunt spent more than $25 million.
Gantt campaign manager Watt says his camp hopes to raise $5 million to $7 million. Helms's people predict they will raise three times that. ``We have a large constituency all over the nation, who give an average donation of $30,'' says Helms spokeswoman Beth Burrus. ``[Helms] is a conservative voice for the nation, and conservatives all over the country realize the necessity for him being in Washington.''
Aides say that Gantt's top priority is getting out his message, a detailed platform that assumes an active government role in solving problems: Increasing the minimum wage, expanding sex education and pregnancy-prevention programs, building up the number of day-care centers, and providing more assistance for seniors. He backs more prenatal health and nutrition programs to reduce North Carolina's infant mortality rate, which is highest in the nation.
Gantt also wants better enforcement of environmental laws and supports using the so-called ``peace dividend'' to invest in the US infrastructure, to reduce the deficit, and to assist emerging democracies around the world.
Helms's `day-to-day' strategy
Helms's staff says the senator has no platform and will just ``take the campaign day-to-day.'' Some analysts say that will allow him to concentrate on attacking Gantt at perceived weak points. Still, Ms. Burrus emphasizes Helms's work on tougher drug legislation and his co-sponsorship of a bill for boot-camp prisons.
``Senator Helms said his three priorities are to cut wasteful spending, cut wasteful spending, cut wasteful spending,'' she says. ``Taxes are too high for North Carolinians. That's why we have so many working women, because you need a two-income family with what the government takes.''
Gantt may also be vulnerable for his pro-choice views on abortion. But some analysts say he can reduce that vulnerability if he frames the issue as one of privacy, as did Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia, who last year became that state's first elected black governor.