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N.C. voters faced with extremes

The Berlin Wall crumbled. A Republican president backed tax increases. And now, Harvey Gantt insists, a black liberal is going to beat Jesse Helms for the U.S. Senate. "We don't pay attention to the conventional wisdom," the smooth, stylish Democrat told supporters inside the banquet room of the Onslow Inn here last week. "This is not a conventional year in American history. There are some changes needed."

A few steps away, however, the down-home crowd at the coffee shop wasn't so sure. Reid Flinchum, the inn's general manager, is sticking with Helms, impressed by his recent crusade against federally subsidized "homoerotic" art.

"If he don't like homosexuals and queers, he says so," Flinchum noted. "That's fine with me _ I don't like 'em either."

"His principles don't ever pass away," agreed Marvin Baker, who supplies the inn's baked goods. "I've heard Jesse Helms stand up and say, "I'm a Christian.' I haven't heard Harvey Gantt say nothing. He might be a Buddhist as far as I'm concerned, a Moslem."

The final two weeks of this campaign will be a tug of war between Republican Helms' deep-seated cultural conservatism and Gantt's call to "move forward" with education improvements, environmental protection and other programs that "really matter" for the 1990s. Both have strong appeal in a state torn between the rural traditions of towns like Jacksonville and the cosmopolitan flavor of cities like Raleigh-Durham some 100 miles to the northwest.

"It's a race about the two North Carolinas," said Harrison Hickman, a Washington-based Democratic pollster who grew up outside Raleigh. "The North Carolina that was a member of the Confederacy and the North Carolina that has the highest concentration of Ph.D.s in the country. It's the tension between the tobacco barn and the School of the Arts."

Helms, 69, who first made his name as a TV commentator opposing communism and the civil rights movement, evokes "the values of the small-town South in the 1940s," observed Ted Arrington, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. Gantt, 47, who grew up in public housing to become an architect and Charlotte's mayor, embodies "the South that's beyond race . . . a faster-paced, less genteel, but more affluent and more egalitarian South."

Polls show the race even, which has some Democrats feeling confident. Though Helms has outspent Gantt by more than 2-1 this year, campaign finance reports filed last week show that the three-term incumbent had just $100,000 in cash on hand as of Sept. 30 compared to $788,000 for the challenger.

But Helms has survived tough campaigns before. In 1984, he edged popular Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt after a two-year, $25-million war that galvanized liberal and conservatives nationwide and saturated North Carolinians with vicious attack advertising by both candidates.

This contest has been shorter and less strident. Democrats didn't settle on their candidate until Gantt, a conciliatory campaigner who asks North Carolinians to "come together," won a runoff primary in June.

Helms has also lost some familiar guideposts. The disintegration of the Soviet empire has rendered his fierce anti-communism irrelevant, and President Bush's support for tax increases has blurred the economic issue.

Instead, Helms highlights a series of emotion-charged issues to demonstrate the Democrat's "extreme liberal values." One ad attacking Gantt's opposition to the death penalty depicts a bloodied rape victim and a murdered police officer. Another features a middle-age woman complaining that Gantt supports abortion for reasons of sex selection and other "pretty awful things."

Helms hammers away at federal subsidies for the "crude, pornographic, so-called art" of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and assailed Gantt's support from "the homosexual lobby." While Gantt stumped the state in recent days, Helms took to the Senate floor to propose a cut in AIDS research funding and to read a letter from a supporter assailing "tasteless" and "vulgar" work.

Gantt, who is married and has four children, does not duck the issue. He holds campaign events at art galleries and embraces his backing from "gays, lesbians, straight folks, women's activists," among others. And he has put Helms on the defensive with ads attacking the Republican's votes against education, clean-air and clean-water legislation.

"I'm proud to be a liberal," Gantt told a mixed-race crowd in tiny Bolivia, ticking off Democratic-inspired programs from Social Security to subsidized mortgages.

The federal budget debate has provided fresh ammunition as Gantt decries "the mess in Washington," proposes taxing the rich, and urges audiences to "sweep out the old and bring in the new." Helms helped kill Bush's deficit-reduction proposal earlier this month, which made the president's fund-raising trip to Raleigh last week a bit awkward.

But it's not clear Gantt can capitalize on anti-incumbent anger against an opponent who proudly wears his flinty nickname: "Senator No."

"Helms rises above the trends . . . he's so different," said Charles Black, Helms' campaign consultant. Helms' attacks on Gantt as a tax-raising, defense-cutting liberal remain potent, he said, adding: "We've got to keep taking the shots."

Democrats charge that some of those shots exploit racism. Helms' ads label Gantt "extremely different" as well as liberal, and Helms' fund-raising letters cite black politicians Jesse Jackson, Democratic National Committee Chairman Ron Brown and Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder.

Helms, whose 1984 campaign emphasized his opposition to a Martin Luther King holiday, promised to "crack heads" if his supporters exploited racial fears this time. But one of his aides, one-time civil rights activist James Meredith, charged last summer that 80 percent of delegates to an NAACP convention "are involved in criminal or immoral activities."

The incident was rich in irony. In 1963, when Gantt became the first black student to attend Clemson University, Helms praised him on television for "rejecting the fanfare and trappings of the NAACP" _ in contrast to Meredith, who was "hand-picked as a showpiece" to integrate the University of Mississippi the year before.

American voters have been sending mixed signals. Ten months after Wilder won the Virginia governor's race, ex-Klansman David Duke drew 44 percent of the vote in Louisiana against a moderate Democratic senator.

Democratic strategists fear current polls overstate Gantt's prospects because of the reluctance of some voters _ perhaps as many as 10 percent _ to identify with the controversial Helms or to admit they won't support a black candidate. Helms' battle-tested campaign team may also have an edge in identifying and turning out its supporters.

"I'll believe Helms can be beaten when he's beaten," said Merle Black (no relation to the Helms consultant), an Emory University professor specializing in Southern politics.

Yet unlike six years ago, Helms has no Ronald Reagan atop the ticket to attract GOP presidential voters and no Jesse Jackson to inspire conservative white backlash. Helms himself has campaigned sparingly, refusing to debate Gantt.

And though Gantt lacks rhetorical flair, political scientist Arrington believes black voters' enthusiasm may push black turnout to a higher-than-expected 22 to 23 percent. He'll need about 40 percent of the white vote to assemble a bi-racial majority.

"We're ready to outrun Jesse to the finish line," Gantt vowed last week, drawing a burst of applause at a Wilmington community center. Shifting briefly to the cadence of his Baptist roots, he declared exuberantly, "I don't feel in no ways tired."

Polls show that fewer than 10 percent of North Carolina voters remain undecided. One recent survey showed that most are white males, a good sign for Helms. But Hickman, who polls for abortion rights advocates, says a surprising number are economically conservative, socially liberal suburbanites who would prefer Gantt's support for a woman's right to choose abortion.

Helms, the conservative that liberals most love to hate, remains the lightning rod. The Democrats' biggest hope may be that, after 18 years, enough moderate voters are simply weary of him.

"There's a lot of people that're not so much for Gantt as they're tired of Jesse," said Fran Flinchum, wife of the Onslow Inn manager who supports Helms. "They're voting for a change."