Helms Struggles to Hang on to Senate Seat as Gantt Edges Closer

JESSE Helms, king of Carolina politics, suddenly can hear the footfalls of a man-who-would-be-king close behind him. As a national champion of conservative views against abortion, homosexuality, and obscene art, Senator Helms remains dear to the hearts of millions of Americans. But as a North Carolina politician, Helms is struggling.

The senator's rival for the crown: Democrat Harvey Gantt, a former Charlotte mayor and a savvy candidate. Experts say Mr. Gantt is giving the Republican senator the toughest race of his career.

Few thought Gantt would be so formidable. He is black, but runs well with whites. He is a liberal, but attracts large numbers of moderates. He's never run statewide, but is outmaneuvering the experienced Helms political team.

Helms, harking back to his favorite themes, would like this election to turn on issues like taxes, defense, communism, crime, drugs, homosexuality, and what he sees as federally funded pornography. But Gantt keeps Helms off balance.

Kelly Johnston, an official with the National Republican Senatorial Committee, admits the race is so close that it ``could go either way.... It's teetering back and forth,'' he says.

``You have to give Gantt credit,'' Mr. Johnston says. ``The race has been fought more on his agenda than ours so far. The top issues of the campaign now are education and the environment, and if it stays there, Gantt wins. If the top issues on election day are taxes and liberalism, then Senator Helms wins.''

Gantt, an architect who has a tennis court in his yard, symbolizes New South values that are challenging old-fashioned politics.

Paul Luebke, a Democrat and author of a new book on North Carolina, ``Tarheel Politics,'' says a Helms loss could be ``the death-knell of traditionalism here ... as a Republican strategy.''

Social traditionalism in the South has been a powerful GOP rallying point. It encompasses suspicion of women, blacks, and homosexuals, support for prayer in the schools, and strong opposition to pornography.

Economically, traditionalists are anti-tax and anti-regulation. However, many economic traditionalists who rallied around Ronald Reagan and Helms in 1984 now find themselves ``offended by social traditionalism,'' Dr. Luebke says. For example, Helms's anti-pornography efforts are repelling many white college students - the MTV generation - who equate Helms's fight against pornographic art as an effort to censor their favorite rock-music groups.

``These are kids who are normally Republicans ... but who are totally offended by Jesse Helms,'' says Luebke, who teaches sociology at UNC-Greensboro.

Any erosion of white support could be disastrous for Helms. Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University, notes that Helms, unlike Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) in adjoining South Carolina, has refused to trim his views or soften his rhetoric to attract black support.

``He starts out by throwing away 15 to 20 percent of the vote [the black population]. The cost to Helms is that he cannot survive with only a small majority of the white vote. If he slipped to 55 percent, he would lose.''

To exploit that weakness, Gantt has nipped at Helms's standing among whites at every opportunity. One of Gantt's cleverest ploys came on a controversy over the environment. When Republican Gov. Jim Martin chose three North Carolina counties as possible sites for a hazardous waste facility, Gantt said the whole issue should be reconsidered, and perhaps none of those counties should be selected.

``That was demagogery,'' says Ted Arrington, a Republican activist and chairman of the political science department at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. The waste site obviously must go somewhere. But people in those three counties took heart, and Gantt gained new support. Helms, afraid to criticize his party's governor, was boxed in.

``Helms stuck with the governor's position in those three counties, giving Gantt the advantage. And this is a race where every little advantage helps,'' Dr. Arrington says.

Although this race has gained national attention, not all Carolinians are thrilled with the candidates. As one woman here commented: ``It's a choice between black and white in more ways than one. Extreme conservative and extreme liberal. I'm undecided right now, but I may go with the extremist I know, rather than the one I don't.''

Another woman from the Greensboro area, Sally Cone, disagrees. Ms. Cone, who usually votes Republican, will switch this time. ``Harvey Gantt is for inclusion, not exclusion. He is trying to bring people together,'' she says. ``He's intelligent, he's articulate, he's out-going, he communicates, he's available, he's not just a 30-second [commercial].''

The strength of Gantt's effort was recently apparent to everyone when fund-raising figures were released. Helms had collected $3.4 million since July 1, but Gantt nearly matched him with $3.2 million. Further, Gantt had $789,000 in the bank; Helms was down to $100,000.

Gantt suggests those numbers show Helms's time is ending. And he chided reporters for ``suggesting that Jesse Helms would overwhelm us with dollars.''

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