Liberal Libby eyes Senate

Posted: Mar 12, 2002 12:00 AM
Elizabeth Dole, former presidential candidate and current candidate for the North Carolina Senate seat, is a celebrity, not a politician. The distinction - becoming ever less subtle since the inception of televised debate - is the difference between being intelligent and just being famous. Libby is the latter, largely because she embodied something that no other candidate in the 2000 presidential race could - womanhood. That is to say, she suggested a saccharine, well-scripted alternative to a dense Republican field. When the press demanded that she provide more than the mere suggestion of an alternative, she promptly surrendered. For this rousing feat, Dole achieved name recognition. Now, wherever she goes, cameras click, suggesting significance of some sort. In a political system where complex issues are routinely dumbed down into television images and sound bites, that sort of name recognition can be enough to carry the day. This rousing point has not been lost on the Republican leadership, which is propping up Dole's campaign. A friend of mine in the Republican press office recently dubbed her "the Riordan of North Carolina." So far, the celebrity treatment has helped spot Dole to an early lead in the opinion polls. As for her actual qualifications as a politician, one notices a certain penchant for flip-flopping. As a presidential candidate, she argued for the banning of assault weapons. As a senatorial candidate in North Carolina - a rural area that plainly likes its guns - Dole is toting a different tune. "We do not need new restrictions on those who already observe the thousands of gun laws on the books," she said recently. Dole has also flopped on protectionism issues, depending upon which administration she was working for. It is further telling that she has, at various times, been registered as a Democrat, an Independent and a Republican. I mention this in the spirit of an August 2001 statewide analysis by The Polling Company, which reported that the North Carolina voting populace considers character to be the most important quality in a politician - even more important than their position on the issues. According to the report, North Carolina voters want a candidate who will stand by his principles unequivocally - a sentiment perfectly embodied by Sen. Jesse Helms, who dominated North Carolina politics for the past decade. As the Polling Company observed: "Character, in North Carolina, seems to be intertwined with some notion of principled political consistency as much as it is equated with political morality, sticking to their beliefs." That does not bode well for Libby, who flops more often than a drunken acrobat does. The other major finding from the Polling Company is that the North Carolina voting populace is socially conservative. By contrast, Dole has spent much of her public life stealthily ducking the abortion issue, leading Time Magazine to famously dub her a "closet liberal." Certainly, all of her Republican primary opponents are far more socially conservative than she. Conceivably, the same could even be said about one of the Democratic hopefuls - State Representative Dan Blue. Her opponents also boast established roots in the state. These roots are important because they help facilitate close interlocking relationships with important community figures such as ministers, teachers, entrepreneurs and union officials. In such a manner, Dole's opponents have all established conduits to the issues that North Carolina citizens care about most. This is not New York where Hillary Clinton recently ascended to the Senate on name recognition alone. North Carolina is far more conservative and familial in orientation. That's why it's worth noting that Dole hasn't taken a sustained sniff of North Carolina air in 40 years - save some periodical visits to her 100-year-old mother, whose Salisbury residence Dole is now claiming as her own. This lack of familiarity with the state was painfully obvious during a recent campaign stop in Robbinsville, where Dole effused that she was "glad that there will be an education bill that the president will sign soon." As the Salisbury Post reported a day before, Bush had already signed the bill. To Scott Falmlen, executive director of the Democratic State Party, Dole's misstep proves two things: "One, she doesn't keep up with the issue important to North Carolinians. Second, she doesn't read her 'hometown' paper." Intrepidly, the carpetbagger carries on, no doubt convinced that the citizens of North Carolina will vote her into office simply because she has spent some time in the public view. Sadly they just might.