Call it a paper ballot. The best seller at yesterday's fund-raiser for North Carolina senatorial candidate Harvey Gantt was the $5 Jesse Helms toilet tissue. "I figure it will be one of those classic things you don't want to miss," laughed Rep. Pat Schroeder, who picked up a roll as a souvenir of this year's most closely watched Senate race.
Though none of them can vote in North Carolina, more than 300 people raised $75,000 for Gantt at a picnic hosted by arts activist Peggy Cooper Cafritz. Most of the crowd, drawn primarily from Washington's art community, had never met the Democratic candidate -- but they knew all about Helms, whose strident opposition to public funding of controversial artists has embroiled the National Endowment for the Arts in a grueling national debate over art and obscenity.
"In a lot of ways, I'm delighted Jesse Helms did what he did," Gantt told the audience. "It mobilized the arts community. Quite frankly, had it not been for that, we might not be as successful as we are today."
Gantt and his camp have reason to be optimistic. With 37 days left in the race, the latest independent poll in North Carolina shows Helms and Gantt neck-and-neck: Helms with 46 percent of the vote, Gantt with 45. It is considered the toughest challenge Helms has faced in his 18 years in the Senate.
Both candidates are raising substantial sums of money from supporters outside their home state -- Gantt from what he termed the "offended constituencies": blacks, women, homosexuals and arts advocates; Helms from conservatives across the country who support his views on flag burning, obscenity and the death penalty.
But for yesterday's intensely partisan crowd, the only issue was Jesse Helms.
"The first step is to encourage other senators not to be frightened by his rhetoric," said actor Christopher Reeve. "The second step is to get rid of the man."
Reeve, who said he gets hundreds of requests to appear at fund-raisers each year, flew down from New York because of his opposition to Helms's interference with the NEA. As a private citizen without any ties to special interests, the actor said, he can be useful to a campaign with "intelligent use" of his celebrity.
"That means being informed and passionate about the issues," he said. "It means never being rented out for an occasion. I only speak in the areas that directly concern me."
"How do you fly?" asked 8-year-old David Spector. "Is it fun being Superman?"
Wires, said the actor. Sort of, he smiled.
Reeve is hosting a "retirement" party for Helms in New York tonight; authors Jay McInerney and Norman Mailer are throwing a fund-raiser for Gantt Thursday night.
"I like to think I have a small constituency that is interested in what I have to say -- and I like to use it," said McInerney, author of "Bright Lights, Big City," who was also at the picnic with his girlfriend, model and victims-rights advocate Marla Hansen.
Gantt has a fair number of influential supporters right here: Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) rallied the troops with a rousing speech; Democratic National Committee chairman Ron Brown came and wrote a personal check for $1,000 for Gantt's campaign, his first personal contribution, he said, since he became chairman of the party; Reps. Schroeder (D-Colo.) and Barney Frank (D-Mass.) dropped by before rushing back to the Hill for a vote on the budget; and former Urban League president Vernon Jordan and author Kitty Kelley strolled on the Cafritz estate and munched on hot dogs, peanuts, pretzels and popcorn.
Frank endorsed the democratic fare.
"It's important to have a pleasant atmosphere -- and low-budget food," he said. "I always say, 'We're not in the catering business. We're in the fund-raising business.' "
It's a business Peggy Cooper Cafritz has gotten pretty good at. "I've asked you for money in the past," she told the crowd, who laughed in agreement. "And I'll probably ask you in the future. But we really need your support today."
"Actually, I was very surprised when I saw the checks," she said later. "I thought this would be pretty much an arts crowd. But we had a number of Republicans, a lot of business types and several people from a big defense PAC."
Brown said Gantt has a serious shot at beating Helms if he is not outspent by more than 3 to 1. If elected, Gantt would be the first black Democrat elected to the Senate.
"What could be greater poetic justice than to beat Jesse Helms with Harvey Gantt?" said Brown. "And the fact is the world is watching. Every place I go, one of the first questions I get is 'How's Gantt going to do?' "
Cafritz said she is even considering going down to North Carolina for the election.
"That's one night I'm going to stay up all night," she said.