SMITHFIELD, N.C. -- The sign on the outside of a tobacco warehouse here proclaims a big "thanks" to Republican Senate candidate Richard Burr for helping tobacco farmers get a $9.6 billion buyout as part of major legislation passed by Congress this month.
Inside the cavernous building one late October evening, a pumped-up crowd of more than 1,000 Republicans ate tubs of barbecue, listened to the Malpass Family country music band, and heard the likes of former senators Jesse Helms and Lauch Faircloth heap praise on Burr, a five-term House member who is locked in a dead-even race with Democrat Erskine B. Bowles for an open seat.
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North Carolina, with its new high-tech industries, professional sports complexes and national banking centers, is undergoing major economic change. But in this final countdown to the election, Burr has linked arms with legends from the state's conservative past and turned to the tried and true themes of tobacco, religion and military strength to rally his GOP base.
It is anyone's guess whether this back-to-basics approach will succeed against Bowles, a businessman and former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton who lost his 2002 Senate race against Elizabeth Dole. An early 10-point lead by Bowles has evaporated, according to the latest polls. Recent electoral history is not on Bowles's side: No Democratic senatorial candidate here has been victorious in a presidential election year since the late Sam Ervin in 1968.
Although Republicans are favored by many political oddsmakers to retain control of the Senate, there are eight or nine races regarded as too close to call -- enough for Democrats to win a majority if they can minimize losses in the South and pick up a few GOP-held seats, mainly in the West and Midwest. The Senate currently has 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats and one Democratic-leaning independent. Seats from five of the eight tossup races are held by Democrats, three by Republicans.
In North Carolina, cultural issues espoused by conservative Republicans are important across rural areas, including this center of tobacco farming where "Jesse-crats" still abound and the now frail Helms, 83, remains a top attraction. Though Helms's failing health required him to deliver his remarks at the Oct. 19 rally while seated at a table, his description of Burr as a "good conservative Christian man" drew rousing applause.
But in a state in which thousands of jobs have been lost in the textile, tobacco and furniture industries, voters are also looking for economic leadership. That could provide a boost to Bowles. a pro-business moderate who has made the economy and jobs the centerpiece of his campaign.
"Economic distress is being felt in rural areas that have been reliably Republican on cultural issues," said Ferrel Guillory, who runs a program on southern politics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "The question is whether the economic stress has opened an opportunity for Bowles to appeal to those people, especially white voters." Bowles described himself as "the only guy with a real jobs plan" -- a 10-point proposal that tracks closely with some of Sen. John F. Kerry's ideas on trade and outsourcing. He also stresses his experience as founder of two North Carolina investment firms, as former director of the Small Business Administration, and as a member of corporate and nonprofit boards.
Burr's campaign ads have attacked Bowles's connection to Clinton, who is not popular in rural North Carolina. Bowles's spots have implied that Burr, a leading House recipient of corporate political funds, is too close to tobacco, pharmaceutical and other special interests.
Bowles can count on support from African American voters and the university and research communities clustered around the Raleigh-Durham area. But Democratic supporters say he needs to perform reasonably well east of the Interstate 95 corridor to offset the state's Republican tilt in a presidential election year.
That is tobacco country, where Burr's role in the buyout enables him to portray himself as an effective promoter of the state's economic interests, on a par with Bowles.
Republicans had been playing defense on tobacco after President Bush remarked casually last May that he saw no need to change the antiquated 65-year-old system under which the government controls tobacco production and supports prices through quotas. Republican leaders defused the issue just in time for the election, by overhauling the tobacco program in a major corporate tax bill signed into law last week. The action appears to have been little help to Republicans in close Senate races in two other tobacco states, South Carolina and Kentucky, where Rep. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and incumbent Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) have lost ground in recent days. DeMint's lead over Democrat Inez Tenenbaum has shrunk to 4 points.
But Burr profited from being assigned by House GOP leaders to the negotiating team that worked out the final tobacco deal with the Senate. Burr said last week the buyout has, at the least, firmed his base.
In a speech here in which he invoked his support of Bush and the war on terrorism, Burr dismissed Bowles's role in the $9.6 billion buyout. Referring to his bespectacled opponent, he said, "I'm not the guy with the glasses. I was there [in the House] representing North Carolina and your interests. I wasn't running for the Senate. "
Bowles responds that the buyout plan he advocated provided $2 billion more for farmers, tougher inspections of foreign tobacco and Food and Drug Administration regulation of tobacco -- opposed by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., whose corporate headquarters is in Burr's district.
"Farmers will tell you who has been solidly in their camp and who was in the RJR camp from Day One," Bowles said.
"For a lot of farmers this is an economic issue, not a political one," said Rep. Bobby R. Etheridge (D-N.C.), who represents the tobacco-growing 2nd Congressional District. "When this thing happened, they realized the Republicans didn't do it by themselves. And neither did the Democrats. At the end of the day they'll give credit to both sides."
Staff writer Helen Dewar contributed to this report.