RALEIGH, N.C. -- Why are North Carolina Republicans nervous about retaining the Senate seat of retiring Sen. Jesse Helms? After all, Elizabeth Dole enjoys a 47-point lead over her probable Democratic opponent, former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles. She is an icon in this her native state, venerated as a Southern Mother Teresa.
But Mother Teresa never ran for election in her birthplace of Macedonia after many years in Calcutta. Republicans here fear Mrs. Dole's return to Salisbury, N.C., has not been unblemished. They see a well-financed Bowles gaining ground, narrowing the lead to 15 points by the May primary, with the margin after that diminishing for a Senate seat whose retention is essential if Republicans are to regain Senate control.
Republican candidates lost the last three elections for governor and the last race for U.S. senator by failing in the eastern part of the state -- the traditionally Democratic, culturally conservative region that propelled Jesse Helms into the Senate 30 years ago. North Carolina GOP activists see danger there for Dole, whom they regard as a Washington candidate, promoted by the White House and managed from the capital city.
Conservatives here distrust Dole, despite a full endorsement by Helms and a more conservative position on guns and abortion than she displayed in her failed 2000 presidential run. Rep. Walter Jones has declined to endorse Dole until he gets her positions on those issues in writing.
This is no liberal-vs.-conservative confrontation, however. "It is not about ideology," State Rep. Lyons Gray of Winston-Salem told me. "It is about getting Elizabeth Dole off her butt and getting her on people's front porches." Gray, a moderate Republican, wants her to emulate Hillary Clinton's "listening campaign" to introduce herself to the people of North Carolina.
Dole has admirers. "I am really impressed with her energy and her knowledge," Republican State Chairman Bill Cobey told me. However, many other Republicans here agree with Gray, while not sharing his willingness to be quoted by name.
The criticisms repeat what was said about Dole's presidential run. She is described as obsessive about details. Contributors report her failure to send thank-you notes. Until a series of lengthy interviews last Friday, she was shielded from reporters.
Republican activists here see the Dole campaign as a Washington creation. Until she returned to North Carolina, the leading Senate possibility was Rep. Richard Burr. At age 46, Burr represents a new generation of North Carolina GOP leaders; at age 65, Dole does not. The powers in Washington looked at the high-profile Dole against Burr, unknown outside his House district, and went with the polls.
There are also complaints of long-distance leadership provided by Washington lobbyist Ed Gillespie, who has been hired by Dole as campaign strategist. He is one of the brightest young members of the capital's political establishment. But as a New Jerseyite, he is even more remote from current Carolina folkways than his candidate.
Fairly or not, Gillespie is blamed for inadequate handling of the Dole campaign's first little crisis. On a scheduled Dole visit to Houston last Sept. 20, a fund-raiser hosted by Enron's Kenneth Lay was added on and collected $20,000. When scandal enveloped the energy company, she donated only $5,000 -- the amount directly contributed by Lay and his relatives -- to fired Enron employees. That performance was the object of a Democratic anti-Dole television attack ad. It is widely noted here that Enron was among Gillespie's clients.
Bowles is a totally inexperienced and non-charismatic candidate who does not inspire overpowering optimism among Democrats. "I don't see how we can get enough of the women's vote to win," one of Bowles's prominent supporters told me.
Nevertheless, multi-millionaire Bowles is raising money across the continent and is getting North Carolina contributions from bankers and industrialists who in recent years have given only to Republicans. During the Clinton administration, he was unmistakably the favorite presidential aide among Republicans, giving the impression he was performing an unpleasant, patriotic service.
Bowles always manages to seem less liberal than he really is. For Sen. John Edwards and Gov. Michael Easley, that has proved a formula for Democratic victory in a state that no Republican has lost for president since Barry Goldwater.