Elizabeth Dole may not have lived in North Carolina since Elvis was king and Ike president, but she swears she never quite left her Tarheel home.
Even as the adviser to five presidents and as the former Red Cross chief, Ms. Dole made regular trips back to the textile town of Salisbury, where as a girl she was given her nickname, Liddy.
Dole brings the kind of national name recognition that's rare for North Carolina politicians to her race to replace retiring Sen. Jesse Helms. Yet her likely opponent - Charlotte investment banker Erskine Bowles - carries weight with a national reputation as well.
Dole's campaign officially starts tomorrow with a "kick-off" party in Salisbury. If successful, Dole would become the first woman senator from North Carolina.
The North Carolina seat is one of three open Senate seats in the South - all vacated by Republicans - that have both parties preparing for a close fight. "What you will have is very intense battles concentrated in a few small areas, and North Carolina is one of those," says Andy Taylor, a political-science professor at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.
But the deeper question for Tarheel residents is how an unproven national candidate favored by the national Republican Party will handle the rapidly changing economy and demographics of a state lumbering out of its textile and tobacco past.
"We've had a string of elections where the soul of the state was at stake," says Ferrell Guillory, a Southern-culture expert at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "This is one where the state is still coming to grips with how much it has roots in the past and how much it's moving into the future."
North Carolina today is a far different place from when Mr. Helms rose to become one of the most controversial Southern hawks in American history. Today, Dole will have to assemble a coalition that appeals to tobacco farmers losing their allotments and manufacturers reeling from big job losses - as well as a million newcomers to the state.
Well-bred, Ivy League-educated, and a glass-ceiling-breaker extraordinaire, Dole will have to walk the fine line between the modern sensibilities of the cities and the languidity and churchliness of the rural regions. It's a coalition that Helms himself could barely hold together.
From county fairs to tobacco auctions, her reputation has preceded her: She's mobbed by autograph seekers and well-wishers, most of whom easily melt under her smile and drawl. Her polling numbers are so strong that several Republican candidates have already bowed out.
"She's a polished lady, educated. She says what she means, and she has the experience for the job," says Herbert Eddins, sitting by a personalized portrait of the Doles at the Rolesville Flea Market just north of Raleigh.
Yet a national reputation also brings national baggage. Just days after Sept. 11, when she announced she was suspending all campaign activities, Dole attended a fundraiser in Houston hosted by Enron chairman Kenneth Lay. The Democrats, eager to replace Helms with one of their own, have pounced on that.
But more important may be how her relatively moderate national persona plays with Bible-thumping conservatives - who may not just question the firmness of her antiabortion stance, but even whether a "lady" should hold such a powerful position.
While Dole's image as a Southern doyenne appeals to many in a state where cotillion parties still fill up local Holiday Inns, some traditionalists wonder if she has the gravitas for the job at a time when national-security issues are paramount.
"People right now are thinking national security and defense, and they want strong leadership," says Mr. Taylor at North Carolina State. "In this climate, [Dole's image] might become a negative."
Her endorsement by Helms is crucial to shore up the wing of the party that swings the state's political barometer to the right. Many noticed how Helms, in his endorsement, referred to her twice as "conservative." Still, some on the right doubt whether Dole has the heft they're looking for. She does face opposition in the GOP primary, but it's nominal.
"She may not have to fight hard to get the nomination, but she will have to fight hard to not get people grumbling on the right-hand side of the ideological spectrum, which could be harmful to her in the general election," says Thad Beyle, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina.
She would have to use all her Southern wiles to joust with Mr. Bowles, who has his own vast Tarheel network. A chief of staff under President Clinton, he is said to be tapping into the former president's Rolodex to keep up with Dole's out-of-state fundraising.
To be sure, North Carolina never liked Clinton much. He didn't win the state in either the 1992 or 1996 elections. Tobacco farmers, in particular, say of Bowles: "He's got Clinton written right across his forehead."
Still, Bowles never left North Carolina for any length of time, and he was recently part of a rural prosperity task force that has already led to the creation of a rural Internet authority and an investment banking program to aid faltering tobacco towns and stagnating textile barns.
For now, polls are giving Dole the edge. "She's going to have a lot of money, she's got potency, and in addition to that, she's got star quality," says Mr. Guillory of the University of North Carolina. "She's leading in the polls, and that only begets more support."