The pork is sizzling at Wilbur's Barbecue, and so is Democratic Senate hopeful Erskine Bowles, who doffs his pinstripe persona for shirtsleeves and a down-home, Nascar-dad delivery.
"If you don't think I'm excited and jacked up to be with y'all, you're craaa-zy," he says as he leaps to the podium before a lunch for tobacco farmers in Goldsboro, N.C. Then, he tells the story about being mistaken for the weather man by a big ol' boy at Burger King, adding: "I eat 90 percent of my meals at Burger King." It's good for a laugh in Goldsboro and, the next day, at a rally in Greenville.
So why is this former Clinton chief of staff and courtly wonk campaigning as Andy of Mayberry, supercharged? Because elections aren't only about getting the issues right. They're also about connections with people: Get that piece wrong, and you lose.
It's an age-old lesson of politics, but one amplified this year by a 50-50 electoral landscape. In a year of intense feelings, when many voters will opt for a straight Democratic or Republican ticket, control of the US Senate could hinge on a few races where candidates are emphasizing local ties.
"Voters aren't just toting up issues, as they do on a Chinese menu. They're looking for cultural affinity. They want some sense that the candidates understand their lives," says Ferrell Guillory, director of the Program on Southern Politics, Media, and Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"It's especially true for Democrats in the South," he adds, "because Republicans have surged in large part by defining Southern Democrats as part of the national Democratic framework."
Republicans now hold a 51-48 edge over Democrats in the Senate. With one independent senator aligned with Democrats, a shift of just two seats would tip control away from the GOP.
Eight Senate races nationwide are considered competitive, and in several races - from South Carolina to South Dakota - candidates are walking a fine line between having the connections and credentials that are increasingly critical to running a viable Senate race and keeping enough of an "outsider" image to appeal to the folks at home.
It's a lesson Bowles learned hard here in North Carolina in his 2002 Senate campaign, where he was viewed as too remote and cerebral, too much of a Washington insider for many voters in the state. This time, against GOP Rep. Richard Burr, he's downplaying the policy papers ("They're on the website.") and running as a local boy with a big heart. "I could spout every statistic about why it's important for every kid in our country to have health insurance, but I get it here, and it's burning a hole in me," he tells Democratic activists in Wilmington, pointing to his chest. "I want to go up there and make it right."
In neighboring South Carolina, Democrat Inez Tenenbaum, is running on her experience as state superintendent of education to highlight ties to the state. In her race against Rep. Jim DeMint, she's bucking the national Democrats on issues ranging from abortion to gun control.
Similarly, in the battleground state of Colorado, moderate Democrat Ken Salazar is campaigning on his strong ties to rural areas and to the state's growing Hispanic population, now 17 percent. His opponent, Coors Brewing Chairman Pete Coors, is a virtual state icon, due to his image in beer ads.
In South Dakota, GOP challenger John Thune has put longtime incumbent Tom Daschle on the run, in large part by arguing that the Senate Democratic leader is out of touch with his home state.
"It is terribly ironic that Senator Daschle would vote by absentee [ballot] in South Dakota when he has declared his 'principal place of residence' as Washington, D.C.," said former Representative Thune Tuesday, citing Daschle's 2003 purchase of a D.C. "mansion" in 2003. Thune also notes that Daschle's wife is a top Washington lobbyist who "has never lived in South Dakota."
Daschle has tried to scrupulously maintain ties to his state, including annual solo drives to all 66 South Dakota counties.
In another key Senate race, in Oklahoma, former GOP Rep. Tom Coburn is running so far away from Washington that he's even opposing his own party leadership. Not the choice of the Bush White House in the primary, Coburn, a doctor who continued delivering babies in Oklahoma throughout his six years in the US House of Representatives, is blasting former colleagues for "going native" in Washington and abandoning conservative ideals.
Despite a spate of controversial remarks, Coburn is running even in this race against Rep. Brad Carson, thanks to strong ties to conservative voters in the state, across party lines. A key to his support is his ability to connect with Oklahomans.
"Coburn is the ultimate outsider: He's [a Republican] running against this Republican-controlled Congress," says Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report.
Back in North Carolina, third-generation tobacco grower Paul Howard plans to vote for President Bush, as he did for former Republican Sen. Jesse Helms. But he'll also vote for Bowles. "Bowles has just enough Washington about him to bring people together," he says. "But he also was at a lot of functions I attended, and he stood in the background listening. He was concerned about us or he wouldn't have been there."