Tight N.C. Senate race turns nasty as Helms, Gantt trade barbs


CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The high road is closed in the North Carolina Senate race.

From the beginning, the contest between Republican Sen. Jesse Helms and Democrat Harvey Gantt, the black former mayor of Charlotte, was framed in stark ideological terms. Helms, the unflinching conservative, and Gantt, the unapologetic liberal, are polar opposites in politics.

Until this week, however, they had waged a relatively genteel campaign, barely touching gloves as they sparred via television commercials.

Now, with the election less than a week away and the race too close to call, the gloves are off.

"Mr. Gantt cannot tell the truth about a thing," Helms told a crowd of supporters in Durham Monday.

Helms, 69, who is finishing his third term in the Senate, accused Gantt of playing racial politics by airing a commercial on black-oriented radio stations.

"Inasmuch as he is playing the ad . . . only on black stations," Helms told reporters Monday, "obviously he is injecting the race issue."

At a lunchtime rally in Charlotte yesterday, Gantt returned the punch, calling the radio-ad charge a smear and accusing Helms of cowardice for not agreeing to televised debates.

"He doesn't have the courage to get up on a stage and talk about the issues that are important," Gantt said.

Later, in a brief interview, Gantt sharpened his attack.

"I've been in 16 campaigns," said the Democrat, "and this is the first time I've never laid eyes on my opponent. He continues to lie and lie, then call me a liar."

The harsh confrontation was probably inevitable in the North Carolina race, the most compelling of the 1990 campaign season.

Jesse Helms has become the visible symbol -- almost the personification -- of unyielding cultural conservatism in the United States. On a wide range of issues, from abortion to welfare, from flag desecration to defense and, lately, obscenity in the arts, Helms defines the right-wing position.

It makes him a hero to his followers and a target to his political enemies.

Gantt, 47, who beat white opponents in a party primary and runoff last summer, is an unabashed liberal.

An architect and a former two-term mayor of Charlotte, he came to prominence in 1963 when he became the first black student at Clemson University.

On the stump, Gantt has avoided talk of making history as the first black Democrat elected to the Senate since Reconstruction. Instead, he has hammered away at Helms' 18-year record on education, child care and the environment, and he has attacked the incumbent's anti-abortion stance.

Money has become an issue in the waning days of the campaign.

According to the Federal Election Commission, the National Abortion Rights League has spent $200,000 on radio and television ads attacking Helms for his anti-abortion posture. The political action committee for the National Education Association has invested $100,000 in the Gantt effort, and more modest sums have come from gay activist organizations and arts groups across the country.

"Helms is still telling people that old Harv is getting money from gay bars in California," Gantt said yesterday. "Gay people, wherever they are, are citizens. And nobody in this race has a monopoly on money from outside North Carolina."

Certainly Helms is no slouch at garnering campaign contributions, both at home and away. His Raleigh-based Congressional Club is one of the nation's largest direct-mail fund-raisers, and it spreads its money and influence in far-flung directions.

Helms raised $16.9 million to defeat Democrat Jim Hunt in 1984, the most expensive Senate race in U.S. history. This time, according to the Election Commission, Helms had raised $9.8 million through Sept. 30, while Gantt had collected $4.1 million.

No one can predict the outcome of this race with any certainty.

The latest poll by the Charlotte Observer shows Gantt holding a 49-41 advantage, with 10 percent undecided. But while the lead emboldens Gantt's supporters, political professionals agree the polls are less than credible when black candidates face white opponents.

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