TROY, N.C. -- Here in this rural mountain town, Sen. Jesse Helms's current nightmare scoots up the courthouse steps: a GQ liberal in a natty gray wool suit, no vents, Guccis on his feet, no drawl -- an unabashed, art-loving, confessed tax-and-spend Democrat who likes to tell how America has been very, very good to Harvey Gantt, and how he wants to help it be good to you.

"We need a senator who is more concerned about educating the children of North Carolina and less concerned about some right-wing dictator," rails Gantt, blaming the anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-government-spending incumbent Helms for much of the state's ills: 49th place in SAT scores, soaring high school dropout rate, 900 toxic-waste sites, polluted rivers, high infant mortality -- you name it.

Then he makes the Liberal Pitch: for billions of dollars in federal aid for schools, health care, environmental and social programs he'd pay for with big Pentagon cuts and tax hikes -- largess he says Helms has voted against.

"You need a senator who is going to vote for you," says Harvey Gantt, "not someone who tells you that a bogeyman ... is coming to get you, who tries to rip away at your worst instincts, at the fears we all have.

"I'm an architect," says Gantt, a 16-year politician as well, who makes his case flanked by county deputies beneath two giant pin oaks towering over the Confederate memorial on the town square. "I believe in building, not tearing down. Building bridges of understanding, not walls of division."

It's a courthouse sermon evangelizing vague Great Society-style programs Gantt favors if he can parry race as a factor to become the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction.

But with Helms's ugly racial appeals, sniping away at Gantt's lead in the polls last week, the contest has become one of the hottest, dirtiest and closest Senate races in the country, a virtual dead heat. It also has many wondering just how far a state considered a symbol of the progressive New South -- as well as the region itself -- has evolved.

To hold on to his 18-year Senate seat, Helms has revived one of his classic campaign rituals: highly volatile, eleventh-hour, racially tinged TV ads, which Gantt calls "smear tactics."

But on this day Gantt vows that "people power will win out over money power," then pops the question:

"IS IT TIME FOR A CHANGE?" he shouts, the normally reserved architect loosened up considerably by his campaign trials.

"YEAAAAAAAAAH!" they shout back.


"YEAAAAAAAAAAH!" they shout back.

"Go get 'em," hollers David Monroe, 67, a conservative Democrat in a baseball cap emblazoned with "Good Ol' Boy," amid an applauding salt-and-pepper sea of 200 faces.

Like other white supporters crucial to any Gantt upset, Monroe offers his reason for driving 30 miles to be here: "I get embarrassed when I go out of state and strangers say, 'How did y'all come to elect a man like Jesse Helms?' I want a senator I can be proud of."

"He's not only got the black vote fired up, he's got the white vote fired up," says white-haired Louise Dorsett, gazing up at the man who analysts say needs more than 40 percent of the white vote, strong black turnout and a share of the 5 to 12 percent who pollsters cite as undecided over whether to do, until now, the unthinkable: retire Jesse Helms.

"We've got a true gentleman to support," swoons Dorsett, punching up the word gentleman to the holy status such labels still evoke in a region where manners still count for something.

The Southern Gentleman Strategy Indeed, Harvey Gantt, 47, suggests a Southern Gentleman, courtly as he disarms white resistance by professing "no chip" on his shoulder as a black man who rose above the segregated South to prosper professionally and politically.

The question is whether such a gingerly approach -- coupled with anti-Helms and anti-Washington winds blowing about this conservative heartland -- will create sufficient Southern comfort to elect him. On the stump, he tries to play down race, takes care not to confront or rub whites wrong. He takes the hands of elderly white ladies, looks them in the eye and says, "Yes, ma'am."

"I guess they can see I'm obviously black," he tells reporters after a speech to Greensboro business leaders. "When I'm asked about race, the answer you usually see in the national press is that 'Gantt brushes it away,' " he says.

"But race is a factor in any election in America, if the opponents are of different races. We made that calculation way back, and that calculation said, 'You can win.' I'm not in this for the exercise.

"When Helms does something that is racist, we'll call his hand on it. ... We haven't seen a need to highlight race. It obfuscates the important issues, so we're not dwelling on that. I don't dwell on this 'history-making' business. I've made enough history. That's not why I'm running."

When he does talk about his churchgoing family, or acknowledge the symbols of his success, from a profitable design firm to a 4,000-square-foot contemporary house with a private tennis court in back, he appears to be reminding the mainstream whites whose votes he needs that they share the same American dreams: the rewards of hard work and the "North Carolina values" Helms has trumpeted in TV ads as his exclusive domain.

As perhaps subtle proof that he can rise above purely black concerns, he touts his record of leading Charlotte, a progressive white Southern city, on the city council, then as mayor. Some whites are pleased to remember that he declined to support Jesse Jackson for president in 1984. Unlike Jackson, Gantt doesn't dwell on civil rights failures.

Until last week, his strategy appeared to be working. He was actually leading Helms by a stunning eight points in a poll by the Charlotte Observer, but that lead has since slipped after Helms flew back to North Carolina last week for a rare round of campaigning and a blitz of TV gutter balls aimed at Gantt. "It was tough to stir the troops without the candidate," said Tom Ballus, state Republican Party spokesman. "But that poll woke them up. They can't imagine him not being a senator."

Friday night, a new Observer poll showed Gantt's lead had slipped two points to 6 percent, with further erosion in his white support, down from 42 percent to 38 percent.

The quick shrinkage had Gantt advisers worried about the softness of support among white voters. In one recent attack, Helms accused Gantt of pocketing donations from avant-garde artists and from fund-raisers held at gay bars from Washington to San Francisco. Cocking the infamous campaign fist further, Helms last week portrayed Gantt as a greedy opportunist out to profit from public office by taking advantage of federal minority preference programs in a TV station he purchased, then sold to a white-owned firm.

"Why was Harvey Gantt defeated as mayor?" asked last week's ad. "Gantt used his office and minority preference to get a TV station license, investing just $679, and only weeks later sold {out} to a white corporation making a profit of $450,000. Black leaders ... said Gantt got the license under false pretenses and that Gantt was sacrificing principle for profit. That's why Harvey Gantt was defeated."

Not exactly, says Gantt.

Since Gantt and his partnership were the lone applicants for station WJYZ, no minority preference was used to win the license, he says. Several years ago, the FCC investigated the charge that Helms is raising anew, and found no cause for action.

About his mayoral loss, Gantt cites his own complacency and overconfidence as the reason for GOP challenger Sue Myrick's upset victory over him in 1987.

"We didn't campaign very hard," says Gantt.

What surprised him, says Jeff Huberman, Gantt's architecture partner, was that he lost after two terms as mayor largely as a result of emotional charges about traffic tie-ups in the city. Gantt assumed voters would see through Myrick's attacking him for that. "He expects people to be reasonable and rational," says Huberman. "But intellectual politicians don't always win. Sometimes people want to hear the easiest answer -- simplistic, emotional answers, as in Helms's ads. Harvey's not good at that. It takes him more than one sentence on the nightly news to explain an issue."

Helms appears to be harvesting the same minefields Myrick planted in her race against Gantt. Beyond traffic, she trotted out flipping the TV license as well as full-page ads blasting Gantt for a statement he made about using trickle-down prosperity to fuel black entrepreneurship: "A mayor is not worth his salt if he can't help create a few black millionaires by the time his term is over." Gantt shakes his head about the much-maligned quote he says was taken out of context.

At least one Gantt adviser, upbeat until last week, fears that Helms's racial and anti-homosexual harangues may be scoring after earlier scattershots missed. "What Helms is saying is that 51 percent of North Carolina voters are prepared to say, 'I don't like homosexuals and can't stand the fact that blacks get hired ahead of whites.' It's so close, that strategy could backfire, or win."

Early Ironies Back in his blue-gray campaign Cadillac, he roars across the state, more than 40,000 miles on the odometer, gunning for an Old South legend and yet another place in the history books.

He won his first footnote more than 20 years before becoming Charlotte's first black mayor in 1983. Gantt was among two dozen high school seniors to integrate the S.H. Kress lunch counter in his hometown of Charleston, S.C.

Growing up, "we tended to have a positive attitude about changes brought about by the civil rights movement," says Gantt during a brief campaign pit stop, as he describes peers who came of age in the segregated South.

"What the whole experience did was give us {Southern blacks} a kind of optimism in the ability to bring about change," he goes on, "so we're not nearly as discouraged or angry as some of my Northern counterparts who didn't see as much meaningful and tangible change. ... I want people to believe a lot of things are possible," he says. "So I tell my story of coming from very average circumstances to achieve some measure of success."

After graduating from high school and spending a cold winter at Iowa State University, he wanted to study architecture closer to home, he says, and, court order in hand, enrolled in 1963 at Clemson University in South Carolina, bastion of the country's last completely segregated university system.

It was peace and love compared with the riots sparked by a man who, in a curious Southern irony, wound up as Helms's Senate aide-de-camp: James Meredith. He had integrated Ole Miss a few months earlier.

Helms himself, then a young TV commentator, took notice. The future senator then portrayed Gantt far differently from the way his ads did last week.

In an editorial aired Jan. 29, 1963, on Raleigh's WRAL-TV, Helms trashed his current aide Meredith as a "showpiece of forced integration," while praising Gantt for his low-key style and pure-as-snow, educational goals. Imagine it as a Gantt ad in this campaign; advisers briefly toyed with the notion.

Said Helms: Gantt "has demonstrated that he knows a thing or two about human nature, and, more important to our way of thinking, that he is sincere. ...

"He has rejected the fanfare and trappings of the NAACP. He has turned away from the liberal press and television networks which would glorify him. He has refused to make pompous speeches.

"If ever a man put his best foot forward, Harvey Gantt has done so."

It was quite an endorsement, but Clemson wasn't easy on Gantt, say ex-students, even though the candidate today sloughs off the death threats and shunning that he experienced in college. One hall proctor, who armed himself just in case, says Gantt asked him to intercede quietly with students in a room directly above his who were bent on dribbling a basketball in round-the-clock shifts.

"He was very low-key about it," recalls the proctor, Dennis Crocker, 47, a South Carolina businessman. "If our roles were reversed, I don't know if I would have had the courage."

At first, students refused to sit with him in the dining hall, and Gantt ate alone. Black cafeteria workers quietly slipped him extra helpings for morale, and writer Zalen Grant, 49, then a college columnist, sparked a deafening silence when he began to plop down at Gantt's table and then recruit Clemson football players as back-up, sending a message.

"Sometimes his table was filled up and I couldn't get a seat," says Grant. "People found out he was a very nice guy and he quickly developed his own friends."

"It wasn't bad," says Gantt, reflecting after a speech, "even though my mom was upset and said, 'Son, pull your shades down at night, because you don't want to take the chance some crazy KKK person will shoot you.' Segregationist politicians said, 'Ostracize this kid and he won't last long.' But we would have gutted it out."

What made him gut it out then and now? "I'd always been a positive kid," he says, "because my dad was a positive man. How I get through anything has to do with the confidence" instilled by his family that "a better day would come," even for a poor black family down South.

"We knew we were segregated, but it never felt bad," he says, recalling debates over articles in Ebony and the Saturday Evening Post at the dinner table. "It was just a way of life. But Dad always said, 'One day it's going to change. It's going to be a different world.'

"That was the message we always got. He belonged to the NAACP, and exposed us to black leaders when they came to town. We read James Baldwin, Richard Wright. ... Dad kept saying, 'A better world is coming, the Gantts are going to overcome. Blacks are going to do better. The South really is going to be a great place to live.'

"By the time I got to Clemson, it wasn't a pioneering thing for me. It wasn't a mountain to climb, as big as people thought it was. Just like beating Helms is not going to be as big as you all are going to make it."

The Plunge

"There are a lot of 'Jessecrats' here tonight," warns a local reporter at an Albemarle high school rally for Stanly County democrats.

"But they've been Democrats all their lives," argues Gantt, "probably worked very hard. Maybe I can help them understand how the Republicans have more interest in the wealthy, change their minds. I want working people to understand how Jesse Helms has been voting against them ... "

Then he plunges into the crowd, grabs hands. "I'm Harvey Gantt and I'd like to get your vote. Do I have it?" he asks.

"Don't worry," says an elderly white woman, "you're going to get it."

Gantt collars the portly white sheriff. "You got a good strong coattail to carry me in?" Gantt winks.

"He's not as liberal as they say," offers Corynthia Little, 17, a black high school senior, gaga over getting an autograph. "I'd like to follow in his footsteps."

"He's exciting people with his message, young people, working people," allows David Heath, 35, a white heating oil distributor. "He appeals to women {as pro-choice}. He hasn't tried to get into the gutter with Helms. People appreciate that."

Normally staid, Gantt waxes poetic as a preacher on this night. "We've been called pretty nasty things," he shouts. Pause. "Like 'extremely liberal.' " The crowd roars approval. "I met someone the other day who said, 'I might vote for you, but you're extremely liberal.' I said, 'What the hell are you talking about.' "

Gantt's got them hooked and grinning.

"You see," he goes on, "Republicans for some reason have cornered the market on patriotism, family values, morality. If you're a Democrat ... you must not be living right.

"What's so bad is, so many hard-working folks have fallen for that public relations crap, and it's gotten to the point that not a single program to help people has gotten out of Congress for 10 years, because people are intimidated."

He blames Ronald Reagan, Republicans and Helms. "Jesse Helms talks about how he votes no on everything," says Gantt. "You know what he votes no on, but he votes yes on every single defense bill. He doesn't know a defense contractor he doesn't like.

"I don't know any American who's against strong defense, but I don't want to buy a $600,000 fax machine that's designed to withstand a nuclear bomb just so some general can send a fax."

Afterward, they line up to shake his hand, including converted Jessecrats like white dentist Jay Coyle, 34, two daughters in tow. "My contemporaries are ready for a change," he says. "We've tried Jesse Helms and now want someone with a perspective on what people in the area really want."

"Tonight, he connected emotionally," says Democrat Lynn McCaskill, 47, a white pharmacist who drove an hour to hear Gantt again. "That's important because Mr. Helms is so experienced at it."

Do other whites in rural Ellerby, N.C., share his Gantt leanings? "A significant number won't vote for him because he's black," McCaskill says, "but a significant number are looking at the issues, not color."

The Blueprint

Color once kept Gantt's family down, but never down and out, he likes to say. From his toddler days, he saw his father buy land, build his own house and go on to retire after 41 years as a rigger and then department supervisor with the local Navy shipyard -- all on an eighth-grade education, his pride intact.

Harvey was the oldest of five children born to Christopher and Wilhelmenia Gantt. His father had to work two jobs, but used the dinner table to teach his kids about the real world. "We talked about how the world worked, how to get along with people," reflects his father, "to give the other fella a fair break, even if sometimes he didn't want be fair to you."

Segregation was hotly debated, including one article that pointed out how much more public tax money white schools got. Outraged, Harvey's father persuaded officials to let Harvey's Burke High football team use the Citadel's modern stadium, built with state funds, on off nights.

"We always told them, 'Don't let anybody else decide what you are,' " says Christopher Gantt. " 'You decide by being the best.' We never allowed ourselves to think we were any less because we were black, even though the law said it was so."

On the field, quarterback Gantt once faced off against another ambitious teenager from a rival high school, Jesse Jackson. Gantt graduated second in a class of 260, won a scholarship to Iowa State University, transferred from Iowa State to Clemson, graduating with honors in 1965. Then it was on to MIT for a master's degree in urban design. After an Atlanta firm flip-flopped over hiring its first black architect, he took a job in Charlotte. In 1971, he partnered with architect Huberman and they began winning contracts to design a number of buildings for black colleges as well as for government and the private sector, including the Winston-Salem YMCA.

Elected to the city council in 1974, he became Charlotte's first black mayor, winning a sufficient share of white voters, which account for three-fourths of the electorate. He played civic booster, the darling of the white business establishment, presiding over go-go years that included a downtown building boom and landing a national basketball franchise.

A consummate diplomat, Gantt pushed city projects favored by white leaders that sometimes left the black community wondering where he stood, say some local observers. But he was a trickle-down Democrat. "He believed you helped the black community by helping the whole community," says campaign chairman Mel Watt, his closest adviser.

But it was primarily his low-key style that sowed the confusion: He never wore soul on his sleeve. Some blacks jokingly wondered, Can he dance? "He can dance," says Gantt friend Ron Leeper, a black former council member. "The only question is whether he has another white boy's disease. He won't play basketball. Maybe he's worried he'd get found out."

Says white attorney Ralph McMillan, a former member of the Charlotte City Council and a Republican: "He's proud of being black, but doesn't flaunt it. He was like any politician trying to expand his base and did well attracting white votes. But at certain points, black enthusiasm for him waned, especially when he didn't support Jesse Jackson in 1984. That would have hurt him with white voters."

Overall, McMillan calls Gantt a "good spokesman for Charlotte, an intellectual force who pushed big ideas." But at least one big idea has since gone bust: a city-owned shopping mall downtown that Gantt pushed.

Off duty, Gantt sings in the church choir, drives a six-year-old Volvo, religiously roots for the Clemson Tigers and has been known to hustle tennis games incognito, a hat pulled down hard. Mostly he plays at home in his upscale in-town neighborhood, on the private court behind his modern house, whose layout perhaps reflects its designer: tasteful, organized, practical, with sunlight allowed to illuminate every area of the tri-level space, except the psyche of its architect.

Few profess to know him well. Some Charlotte politicos consider Gantt arrogant. "He's not, but I can understand why some people might perceive him that way," says his sister Aundrea Douglas, a Charleston, S.C., social worker. She offers another take: "A man who is comfortable to be around, who happens to be black, and happens not to feel like he has an agenda to prove."

After losing as mayor in 1987, Gantt briefly took up business full time with his design firm. Then, after former North Carolina governor Jim Hunt (who had lost to Helms in the 1984 Senate race) decided against another Helms challenge, Gantt figured that maybe he should run. The first person to hear such an audacious idea was his neighbor, Yale Law grad Mel Watt. "We never talked about race as a factor," Watt says. "I wake up knowing I'm black. Harvey knows he's black. It's something he's dealt with every day of his life. ... Ain't nothing you can do about it, so why worry about it. ... You just hope it's not a factor."

The Final Hour So Gantt runs nonstop, dodging final-hour interviews with the national press, lest Helms seize on Gantt's last-minute media knighthood and use it against him back home, say state Democratic officials. The last thing he needs are symbols Helms can seize on, like gay support and the likes of Ted Kennedy on the stump. Instead Gantt courts the local press.

"My daddy made me go to church every Sunday," Gantt shouts, gripping the lectern at rural Albemarle's North Stanly High the other night, pumping up partisan crowds with the possibility that he just might beat Jesse Helms. "And I make my four kids do the same." Then it's on to Helms's voting record: against Social Security. "He votes against your own interests!" declares Gantt, who assumes the logic of it can only spell mass enlightenment among Helms followers.

Then he attempts to soothe away any fears he may be too radical, that circumstance has made him bitter toward whites. "We were poor, but never felt poor or disadvantaged. I had parents who helped me come out of the segregated South without a chip on my shoulder.

"Believe, me, baby, I love America!"

Applause shakes the Stanly High auditorium, Gantt tapping into Helms's patriotic, up-from-poverty rap, a background they both share, along with strong Christian beliefs and personal tragedy. One of Gantt's sons, born with Down syndrome, died in infancy; Helms's adopted son has cerebral palsy.

"I understand what America is all about," Gantt continues. "I don't have to go over to Saudi Arabia to see the troops and come back and hurrah about it," like Helms.

Afterward, Gantt pumps hands beside a vendor hawking campaign souvenirs, as locals debate the "hidden white vote."

Some Washington analysts draw some parallel between Gantt's race and Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder's upset. One Gantt analyst who asked to remain nameless says in Wilder's case, there were far more so-called undecided voters who apparently turned out to be whites reticent to admit race as a reason and voted against him. In the end, Wilder won, but by a much smaller margin than polls had indicated.

In the Helms-Gantt showdown, with Helms such a known commodity, there are fewer voters in North Carolina who say they are undecided than there were in Virginia. And with polls shifting last week, some of Gantt's white support could be softer than his strategists had hoped. But they are also counting on some of the undecided to be hidden Gantt fans.

"You'll see a lot of whites in North Carolina voting for Harvey Gantt just to be able to say, 'I voted for a black,' to make amends," says former lieutenant governor Bob Jordan.

At Albemarle's Handi Mart in Stanly County, a Jessecrat hangout, Democrat Wilborn "Shorty" Chandler, 66, retiree and World War II vet, takes immense flak for his leanings.

"I'd vote for a billy goat before I'd vote for Jesse Helms," he says, "but a lot of people will vote for Gantt who won't admit it. They don't want to take flak from the neighbors."

"A lot of people here aren't prejudiced," says Chandler, "but there are a lot of rednecks who hate blacks. That's why Gantt ain't going to win, I'm afraid. Some of the most prejudiced people in the world live right here."

Chandler plans to stick to his guns, even after a "fella told me I'd die and go to Hell if I voted for Gantt. When I tell people that's who I'm voting for, some say they won't ever talk to me again, and they go to church. I ask 'em, 'What are you going to do when you die? There's going to be blacks in Heaven.' At least it makes 'em stop and think."