Jesse Helms's supporters say he's upholding the 'traditional values' of his native state. His opponents are asking: What's he really done for us in Washington all these years?

'ARE YOU GOING to make a race thing out of this?" Jesse Helms asks. He is stnding in the middle of his office; I am sitting down. Perhaps he raises the question because it would be an easy peg fro my story. Jesse Helms is white; his opponent in this fall's North Carolina senatorial race, Harvey Gannt, is black. Or perhaps Helms raises the question because he is white and I am black. Most likely, however, I believe Helms just wants to set the agenda, to let me know that he's in control.

I've been trying to sit down with the senator for several weeks, but until this late summer morning in his office in Raleigh, N.C., Helms has been evasive.

Getting at Jesse Helms is no easy task.

Helms repeats the question. "I want you to look me in the eyes, straight in my eyes, and tell me: Are you going to make a race thing out of this?"

I assure him that the story is not just about race.

"I don't need none of that, hear me," Helms says.

Helms is quiet. He is two steps away, staring down at me. He says he's done some checking up on me. He's called people who have previously dealt with me, and some of them were not pleased with the stories I wrote. And, Helms continues, some people have told him that I've been making phone calls, saying that I'm "digging up" stories about him. "Is that how you start interviews," Helms wants to know, "by telling people you want to dig up some dirt on me? Is that the kind of story you are doing?" I tell him that I'm not just "digging up" stories about him, but that I want to talk to the people around him, supporters and opponents alike.

Helms, who has been standing through his words of warning, now sits down. He tightens his lips as if giving special thought to his next words. "Look me in the eyes. I don't want any anonymous sources in this story," he says. "People spread all sorts of stories about me . . . You come back to me and let me hear what you've got. Whatever they tell you, you let me hear it from you."

I make a mental note to be sure and return to Helms one last time to let him hear what people are saying about him.

"Have we got a deal?" Helms asks. "I want you to shake on it like a man. Right now, let's shake on it, right here."

Helms puts out his hand. I reach over. He holds our handshake for a very long time.

AFTER 18 YEARS IN THE U.S. Senate, Republican Jesse Helms may be the nation's most notorious lawmaker, the American politician liberals most love to hate and conservatives most love to celebrate. Charles Manatt, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, called him the "Prince of Darkness," and Ron Brown, the current chairman, has made Helms the number one target for the party to defeat in November.

"Senator No," as he's come to be known, is hardly your standard inside-the-Beltway conservative, and he often takes stands that isolate him completely. He fights with his own colleagues in the Senate; he defies Republican administrations and the State Department. Helms has been criticized by the left and the right for voting against the Americans With Disabilities Act, holding back his vote from a United Nations treaty banning torture and refusing to attend Nelson Mandela's speech to a joint session of Congress.

Nationally, he is the acknowledged king of direct-mail fund-raising. "He is the number one name when it comes to getting the response, the money from direct mail," says mail-solicitation guru Richard Viguerie. Helms's name is also, ironically, the one that raises the most funds for liberals, especially in the Hollywood and New York art communities, where his furious attacks on government funding of the arts have struck a raw nerve.

In his home state of North Carolina, he is renowned for his state-of-the art political operation, the Congressional Club, which controls Helms's campaigns. His television and newspaper ads tar and feather his opponents, drawing on every negative aspect of their characters.

Whatever thunder and lightning comes with the mention of Helms's name, the fact remains that North Carolina voters have sent him to Washington time after time. But this year, if the polls can be trusted, the senator may be in deep trouble.

As I sit in his office, trying to pin him down on certain issues, I realize that I'm not going to learn much about Helms by talking to the senator himself -- especially if I can't get him to sit still for longer than 20 minutes, or if he's constantly laying down the law about which subjects can, and cannot, be broached. ("I don't like journalism," he says to me at one point. "I like news.") Perhaps the only way to understand Jesse Helms is to go to North Carolina and spend as much time as I can listening to his supporters and his detractors, those who love him and those who loathe him. Maybe then I can begin to really get at Jesse Helms.

THE AUCTION AT TEW'S TOBACCO WAREHOUSE ON ROUTE 421 in Dunn, N.C., is in progress. This is the heart of eastern North Carolina -- Jesse Helms Country. The state's first woman auctioneer is calling out the prices, and the buyers and farmers are walking along with her looking at the bales of tobacco, fingering the leaves as they nod and make calls on the tobacco crop. A deep, earthy tobacco smell fills the huge, dusty warehouse. In corners of the room the aroma is so intense it stings the nostrils. On one wall is a large R.J. Reynolds sign that reads "Pride in Tobacco." A red sign hanging from the rafters in the middle of the dimly lit room reads: "Do Not Litter -- Keep Tobacco Clean."

By the front doorway, some farmers, mostly older men in well-worn baseball caps and coveralls, are telling stories and laughing as they sip Cokes and coffee. Others just lean their chairs back against the wall and watch. The hierarchy inside the green metal walls of the tobacco warehouse is clear. The buyers from the big tobacco companies are all white men; the farmers are nearly all white men, with one wealthy widow and a few black men among them; the shirtless men rushing behind the auctioneer and buyers to wrap in burlap the sold tobacco and tie it up are Hispanic migrant workers. And the two men who bend over and hoist the bales of tobacco into two-high stacks are black.

Derwood Hall, 66, and his brother W.R. Hall, 64, both tobacco farmers, are sitting by the door. W.R. has on a gas company baseball cap. Derwood is talking about his recent heart attack. Both are Democrats who have voted for Helms every time he has run. During the 1978 campaign, Helms came to Cavanaugh's supply store and hugged their sister, Ruby. According to the Hall brothers, Ruby is still talking about that.

"He's a conservative man and deep down he is trying to help tobacco farmers," says Derwood Hall, who lives in Dunn. "And he is one to stand up to those Kennedy types -- the do-gooders trying to run the country. They are against anything the average person is for. For example, let me tell you, I don't know whether you smoke or not, but people been smoking as long as there's been time, and those Kennedy people are going to tell you where to smoke, who can smoke, who can't smoke."

On the other side of the warehouse a tall, bald man is standing with his red-headed 7-year-old daughter. He brought her to the warehouse to see the auction but is disappointed that the traditional roar of a male auctioneer's voice has been replaced by a woman's quieter tones.

The man won't give his name because he works for the sheriff's office, but he says he thinks Helms is "an honest man."

"I still think we ought to have the Panama Canal, and he fought hard for us to keep it," he says. "A lot of people call Helms names, but they don't give him credit for things like that. He knew Noriega was no good, but they wouldn't listen to him . . . They say he is a racist. Well, some of his views back then went along with my views. I've said many times I don't deny being racist. I have to fight against it. Growing up in this community it would be hard not to be. Some people say he shouldn't have said anything about the King holiday. {In 1983, Helms opposed legislation that set aside a national holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.} Personally I felt he was right. If they wanted a holiday for a black they could have picked someone other than King. I'm not a King fan. It bothers me that they are afraid to make his private life public. If it's not good enough to be made public, then why have the memorial?"

THE DAILY RECORD NEWSpaper office is located in the middle of Dunn, just past the railroad tracks that split the town. The malls on the outskirts have taken the life out of downtown, giving it a worn, small-town look and cheap rents. Between the empty stores are a pawn shop, a discount clothing store, a drugstore, a baseball card store and a florist. But the tattered look of downtown Dunn is deceptive. Just a short distance away are big, comfortable homes with neat lawns and beautiful paint jobs. And on the highways that lead in and out of Dunn are thriving, modern shopping centers filled with cars and people.

Hoover Adams, the 70-year-old editor of the paper and a big friend of Jesse Helms, is seated in his office just past the receptionist's desk. To enter his office, visitors have to walk under a bas relief of slaves picking cotton. Adams is wearing a stained red tie and black-rimmed glasses. Next to him is his manual typewriter. He uses it to write editorials and a daily front-page column for the Daily Record. Dunn, in eastern North Carolina, is in the 3rd Congressional District, which is overwhelmingly Democratic but has thrown its support to Helms in his three runs for the Senate.

When Harvey Gantt came to Harnett County to open his campaign there, not one Democratic Party official joined the event. "What does that tell you? They don't want to risk it," Adams says. "They know how popular Jesse is here."

In the national media, Adams contends, Helms "is always a racist, a censor, a bigot, you name it. You never see him referred to as a Christian, family man, strict interpreter of the Constitution, the only man willing to stand up for the blue-collar worker, the cotton-mill man. The mill workers here know they've got a man up there who supports them, keeps their taxes low. They don't care about South Africa, about Nicaragua. Lots of people around here don't know the name of the {U.S.} president. They don't know who Pinochet is. They are opposed to big taxes, large bureaucracies. Keeping the fire on the government is the entire secret of his success."

When Helms got into his latest dust-up with the National Endowment for the Arts over federal funding of arts projects such as the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, Helms's office sent an overnight express package of the pictures to Adams.

"You want to see them?" asks Adams, pulling a sheaf of pictures from behind his desk. "Take a look at this before you say anything. This is not about censorship. This is pornography."

Adams says every big paper in the state is opposed to Helms, as are "all the liberal organizations that flood the state with money, you know, People for the American Way and Jane Fonda and the Hollywood people."

According to Federal Election Commission reports, as of June 30, 67 percent of contributions to Helms of more than $200 were from out of state, while 34 percent of Gantt's similar-sized contributions were from out of state. By election time, however, both men will have received truckloads of out-of-state money. Of the 35 senatorial races across the country this November, the Helms-Gantt contest is drawing the most attention.

Adams says 45 percent of the voters will vote against Helms in any case, citing the vote totals for even weak challengers to Helms. Still, he believes that Helms will win again in 1990.

But even Adams thinks the senator has several vulnerable points this time around. "One of his weaknesses may be the abortion thing," Adams says. "Feminists are twisting it around pretty good. Now {abortion} is not about doing wrong. It's about control of their bodies. Well, the law says a woman can't put drugs in her body, can't put too much alcohol in her body, can't prostitute her body, so why should the law allow her to murder children in her body?"

Another of Helms's Achilles' heels, according to Adams, may be the senator's strained relationship with his black constituents. Helms has been reported to use code words to condescendingly refer to blacks -- calling individual blacks "Freds" (the senator denies this) and referring to blacks in general as "the bloc vote." Adams, whose paper regularly includes editorial support for black candidates, finds allegations that Helms is a racist upsetting. Every other Southern member of Congress of Helms's age was a segregationist in the '50s and '60s, he is quick to point out, and Helms was in that tradition. But Adams argues that Helms has changed and now is able to "stand up for black versus white any time he feels the black man is right."

JESSE HELMS WAS BORN IN Monroe, N.C., on October 18, 1921. Forty minutes southeast of Charlotte, Monroe was then, and still is, a small town of farmers -- working cotton, tobacco and corn fields -- and textile workers with strong Southern Baptist traditions.

Today the phone book in Monroe is thick with people named Helms. Ruth Helms, 48, grew up in Monroe and still lives there. As a child she knew the senator's family. She is now a Democratic county commissioner for Union County. She married Robert Helms, who is a distant cousin to the senator. Ruth and Robert Helms remember less about Jesse Helms than they do about his father.

"His father would arrest a colored guy and beat his ass," says Robert Helms. "Big Jesse was a big man, like 6-6, and the colored would drink on the weekend and get arrested. When they got out of jail they'd be all messed up and I'd ask them what happened and they'd say, 'Mr. Jesse popped me in the head, Mr. Robert.' "

Helms's father, "Big Jesse," was the police chief. His mother stayed home and raised the children. Both parents were the children of poor farmers, and they lived in a small neat house on the edge of town.

"He read a lot," says William Hinson, who went through school with Helms and lived two blocks away from him. "He used a lot of big words from the day I met him and that was because he was always reading."

Hinson recalls Monroe in the 1930s as a town hit hard by the Depression because the textile mill was laying people off and prices for cotton -- the cash crop -- dropped considerably. It was a farm town where the locals put $1 down every week at the store so they could get a bike for their child at Christmas. The schools were segregated. Hinson remembers that segregation was an accepted way of life, and "even when we opened our schools to {blacks} they didn't want to go."

Life after school was segregated for young Jesse Helms too. Hinson can't remember one time that he and the other guys at Monroe High played with blacks. It was tight group of young men who did everything together.

The guys who grew up in Monroe with Hinson and Helms include a chief executive officer of the Rexall drugstore chain, a naval admiral, a former president of the Chicago Board of Trade, a former chairman of the board of the University of North Carolina and several doctors. "It was a good, wholesome crowd of young people we grew up with," says Hinson.

For children in Monroe, the most dominating force was the high school principal and band teacher, Ray House.

"I have a good memory of my teachers," says Hinson, "but the person I remember most from school is Mr. House. He was always there, and what he taught us had to do with values . . . What he instilled in us was character and integrity. The value of hard work."

Today Ray House, 84, lives in a retirement community near Winston-Salem. About once a month the phone will ring and it will be Jesse Helms, the young man from Monroe High School.

"Jesse was a good boy," says House. When Helms visits House he won't smoke his Lucky Strikes. It was not allowed in school and it's not allowed now. "Jesse smoking those cigarettes is just politics to please the tobacco farmers," according to House.

House recalls Helms, who graduated from high school in 1938, as an average student who didn't show any particular signs of becoming a nationally known voice of conservatism. There were no elections in high school, and House said Helms did not pay much attention to his schoolwork because it was tradition that boys not get good grades.

In the eighth grade Helms wrote a column about high school sports for the local paper. He also worked at Wilson's, the local drugstore, as a soda jerk. His dream, he confided to House, was to be a newspaper reporter.

He left college as a sophomore and became a sportswriter, then city editor of the Raleigh Times. During World War II he served as a Navy recruiter and appeared on some radio shows to talk about the armed forces.

Helms returned to his job as city editor after the war but in 1948 took a job with WRAL radio doing news and sports. Then he helped start the North Carolina News Network, a statewide radio system that still exists today. Through NCNN, Jesse Helms's voice was first spread across the state.

Helms's political career began in 1950 when he helped Willis Smith, a conservative and wealthy Raleigh lawyer with connections to the owners of WRAL, win election to the Senate in a bitter battle against Frank Porter Graham, the liberal former president of the University of North Carolina. That election is still the subject of heated debate in North Carolina, and much of the heat comes from the question of whether Helms orchestrated a series of race-based attacks on Graham, including circulation of a clip-and-paste picture of Graham's wife supposedly dancing and smiling in the arms of a black man.

When Smith won the campaign, Helms went to Washington with him as his administrative assistant. Smith died three years later, and Helms quickly returned to North Carolina as executive director of the North Carolina Bankers Association. The job included editing and writing a column for a statewide publication, the Tarheel Banker magazine. Helms kept his hand in politics by serving two terms on the Raleigh City Council.

Helms's opinion writing brought him back to the attention of WRAL after it won the rights to a television license. Helms was chosen to present the station's editorial commentary nightly beginning in 1960. The five-minute editorials were rebroadcast the next morning and on 70 radio stations around North Carolina. Helms's voice and combative demeanor became a staple of North Carolina life, a fiery dose of indignation against taxes, the civil rights movement, Chapel Hill intellectuals, the Kennedys, big government and student protests at 6:25 every night for 12 years. He stopped the editorials only when he began his 1972 campaign for the Senate.

"Those people who say Jesse is arch-conservative, they've got it all wrong," says House. "Arch-conservatism is pure Americanism. It's basic to the way we live. We know that if you live that way you'll be happy and secure."

As for the controversy over Helms's stand on funding for the arts, House thinks he understands the problem. As he talks, he begins to sound less like North Carolina's answer to Mr. Chips and more like an old man who is angry because the world has changed. "We taught those boys religious convictions," says House. "We all felt the same way about them gays or whatever. We brought the boys up to feel that way . . . Jesse and I talked about those pictures, and he said he wouldn't feel comfortable sending them to me, but I can imagine what's in there. It's objectionable. It's not for good, decent people . . . Cubism was bad enough, with people riding bicycles backwards."

House also thinks he understands why Helms has trouble with his black constituency, and he's not shy about explaining it to me. "If they carry their weight, okay, the colored people can vote. But they don't want to carry their weight. They need to stop robbing us . . . Look at South Africa. Blacks been there 50,000 years and done nothing with that country. The Dutch came there and made a nation out of it, and now the blacks want it all . . . Jesse will take a stand on something like that. Nothing wrong with that."

WHEN SHE VISITS HIM IN WASHINGTON, ANN FRAZIER IS TELLing me, the senator "will get on his knees and pray with me." And they pray together for a return of values to America, values that define to her what it means to be an American.

Frazier, 52, who lives in Roanoke Rapids, in the northeastern section of the state, near the Virginia border, is active in state politics, in the Southern Baptist Convention, in North Carolina Conservatives United, and she is an active supporter of Jesse Helms. She led fights to close sex clinics in North Carolina schools and defeat a proposal to start a lottery in the state.

As for her opposition to sex clinics, Frazier, the chairman of the board of social services for Halifax County, explains that contraceptives are "a failure because teen pregnancy has increased." She favors teaching young people to abstain from sex on the theory that counseling them to use contraceptives "gets them confused and they start fiddling around with premarital sex -- it doesn't work."

And the lottery, she says, "is bad policy . . . We have seen it builds welfare and invites crime."

Frazier describes her relationship with Helms as "a sharing of the same Christian values and traditional beliefs that are at the heart of North Carolina's life."

"Traditional values," she says, "means supporting the free enterprise system -- capitalism rather than socialism. People with traditional values do not believe in big government. We are for the family. We are against abortion. We want capital punishment to take evil people away. We are opposed to euthanasia. Traditional values call for a strong, sovereign America. Traditional values do not stand for the idea of merging America into a globalist world community which would be socialist . . . We believe America was built upon a Christian foundation and we have strayed from that and caused the problems we see today."

Frazier was particularly incensed at the attacks on Helms after he voted against a bill to give rights to the disabled because the bill would have allowed AIDS patients to work in restaurants.

"He was trying to get protection for the public because the public can't know what is going on behind the wall in a restaurant," she said. "Somebody with AIDS could cut their finger in the kitchen . . . Why do we have to talk about giving queers their rights? Don't we have rights? We didn't do it {give AIDS} to the person. He did it to himself. It's his choice."

CARTER WRENN IS ONE OF THE MAIN reasons it's hard to get at Jesse Helms these days. Wrenn is the director of the Congressional Club, the exclusive, shrewd political organization that is the heart and soul of Jesse Helms's North Carolina campaigns. The club is located across the hall from Helms for Senate headquarters and one floor up from the marketing agency that oversees advertising for Helms. Reporters and their questions are not welcome at the club. Few reporters are allowed to visit or even call. The club employs a young press secretary who is under strict orders not to answer questions from the press; all questions must be written out and faxed to the Congressional Club, and answers are faxed back to the reporters.

With Hoover Adams as my advocate, however, I am allowed to meet with Carter Wrenn. He is 38 years old. A chubby man in expensive clothes, he is seated in a large chair in a top-floor corner office of a six-story suburban office building off a busy highway leading to downtown Raleigh.

Wrenn explains the secrecy surrounding the Congressional Club by saying that he, like Helms, is no fan of the American press. He believes that most newspaper editors are liberal, and consequently the press is unfair to Helms, portraying the senator as a bigot, a censor and a hateful man simply because he is a conservative.

"There's no use talking to the {Raleigh} News & Observer because the editors are not going to let anything good get into the paper about Helms," said Wrenn. "There was an editorial in the News & Observer that said Helms was opposed to poor people. What they were really saying is that Senator Helms opposed the liberal solution to poverty. But they didn't say there were two options. They just said he didn't agree with the liberal solution to poverty so he was against the poor."

Wrenn says the papers have called Helms a racist as "a scare tactic aimed at telling blacks not to vote for Helms." The papers have also made Helms out to be a man who hates homosexuals, he says. "That was a diversion," says Wrenn. "They {the papers} didn't want to debate whether government funds should be used for pornography. They didn't want that debate so they turned it into a personal attack and avoided the issue that way."

Leaning back in his swivel chair, Wrenn says, "We've got five papers worth over $500 million in this state, and every day they are putting out articles opposing Helms and supporting Gantt. That amounts to millions of dollars of support for Gantt and he doesn't even have to pay for it."

In this election Wrenn argues that Gantt -- "a candidate not to be underestimated, he is articulate and attractive" -- poses the toughest challenge Helms has faced for his Senate seat. Part of the reason, Wrenn says, is that Gantt is black and the newspapers and others view any challenge to Gantt as a "racist attack."

AS THE HOGGARD HIGH SCHOOL BAND begins playing "The Star Spangled Banner" on a bright, hot North Carolina Saturday afternoon, a crowd of about 500 people turns in unison to look at the red, white and blue flag waving against the pale blue sky. Some of them put their right hands over their hearts, and most of them sing along. The occasion is the opening of the new terminal at New Hanover International Airport in Wilmington, N.C. The governor, Jim Martin, is here, but the politician people are pointing to is a tall, stoop-shouldered man, 68 years old, wearing hearing aids in both ears and thick, dark-rimmed glasses.

"It is my great pleasure," says Jack Ashby, the airport authority chairman, "to introduce to you our senior U.S. senator, Jesse Helms." There is loud applause -- louder and longer than the governor will be greeted by -- but there are also some boos and hisses.

"It's a beautiful day in this beautiful state in this most beautiful community," begins the senator in a folksy, mumbling way. Helms quickly mentions that the $24 million terminal was built with $10 million in federal funds, and reminds the audience that Wilmington is the largest port in the state. But he slows down when he starts talking about the days during World War II when the Navy assigned him to Wilmington. "I regard Wilmington and New Hanover County as sort of a home place," he says and then adds: "I'm proud of the men and women who made {this airport} happen."

The senator describes the growth of the area as part of the "miracle of America." He closes by saying, "God bless you and God bless America." But he's not done yet. The microphone has been giving him trouble, refusing to stay in place on the lectern. As he tries to put it back in place and go back to his seat, the microphone falls down again and Helms turns to the airport director and says: "Jack, this thing is acting like Ted Kennedy after a night on the town." There is uproarious laughter.

Inside the terminal, the atmosphere is festive. But one 53-year-old white woman, who has stayed seated on a curb throughout the senator's speech, is shaking her head. She has come to the new terminal's opening with her son, a drummer in the Hoggard High band. She's wearing khaki shorts and running shoes, and she can't stop shaking her head as she listens to Helms.

"I can't stand him," says the woman, who is divorced and raising her son while going back to school for a degree in social work. "He is a white supremacist all the way . . . It permeates the whole state. It's a mentality and he is part of it. He just keeps feeding people the same stuff, generation after generation, and they keep buying it and thinking what he's telling them. You know, 'White males should run everything because they are smarter.' 'Women are supposed to stay home and be good Baptists' . . . 'Women aren't supposed to have brains, blacks are supposed to be subservient.' That's all part of what Jesse Helms stands for in North Carolina."

"WHAT PEOPLE ADMIRE HIM FOR IS that he stands up," says Harvey Gantt.

Gantt is right. Time and again, Helms's supporters have explained North Carolina's love affair with the senator by telling me that he is a stand-up guy. Still, that love affair is often puzzling because Helms is perceived by many North Carolinians as a divisive, hateful man. This fall, those people are turning to Gantt to speak for them.

"Jesse said what the average guy, especially the average white guy living in the South, felt but couldn't say," Gantt explains. "He stoked those fires for a long time. Now it's no longer fashionable to say some of those things, and I've been asking people to tell me what Jesse has really done for them. Most people draw a blank. Even the farmers in eastern North Carolina draw a blank.

"I was speaking to a group of veterans," Gantt continues, "and they see Jesse as speaking for them. They see America going down the drain with people burning the flag, and they want someone to speak for them. That person has been Jesse. Our job is to make sure that when they vote for Jesse this time they understand what they are voting for. I told the veterans that Jesse voted against increasing veterans benefits, he voted against additional health care, he was not there on Agent Orange . . . Put all the talk and issues aside -- here is the way Jesse voted. That's what I'm doing, and in previous campaigns people didn't do that enough."

It is Sunday afternoon. Harvey Gantt has just finished playing tennis on the green court in the back yard of the house he designed and built for himself in Charlotte's Ward 4, once a tough area but now becoming gentrified. Gantt, a successful architect before he got into politics, won't say how much the house is worth; he gets testy when asked because he feels too many people call him a "yuppie," and make the wrong assumptions about him because of where he lives.

"You wouldn't be surprised if {former governor} Jim Hunt lived here," Gantt says. "You wouldn't ask him how much his house costs. You'd just assume he lived in a house like this."

Gantt is still breathing heavily after his post-game shower. He is a handsome man with short, salt-and-pepper hair, a shy smile and the widening girth of a middle-aged athlete. He is wearing black shorts, a striped polo shirt and sparkling white Asics running shoes. He wears no socks. His wife, Lucinda, comes into the recreation room and turns off a large-screen television. She hands Gantt, who is leaning back in a black leather chair, a glass filled with iced tea.

Gantt, who lost his job as mayor of Charlotte after two terms because he failed to appreciate the amount of anger generated by the city's runaway growth, is excited to be back in politics and especially happy to be running against Jesse Helms.

"This is the political race of a lifetime," he says, sipping his tea. "If you want to be in politics, this is the kind of race you want. Helms doesn't waffle. He is resolute. I'm not going to waffle. The strength of my campaign is that I have a sharp, contrasting vision to the guy in office. People need to choose up sides."

"My basic message is that the world is changing and it may be time for all Americans, and especially people here in North Carolina, to pay attention to some big problems like education, housing, the environment and so forth."

But to get his message across Gantt must first run through Helms's message: that liberals and the government are trying to undermine North Carolina's traditional values. In 1984 Jim Hunt spent much of his campaign for the Senate rebutting similar charges -- to no avail. He became another liberal pelt on Helms's wall.

JIM HUNT'S LAW OFFICE FEATURES A glass wall that looks out on a pine forest. Inside the office there are expertly painted duck decoys and serene scenes of North Carolina nature.

"I don't like spending time on negative things," Hunt announces with a grimace when I ask him what he thinks about Jesse Helms. He looks out across the cool green of the tall trees and explains that he is willing to do the interview only because he wants to help Harvey Gantt beat Jesse Helms.

In 1984 Hunt, the popular governor of North Carolina, lost to Jesse Helms by 52 percent to 48 percent in an expensive and nasty campaign. Helms won by carrying the state's white male voters, the most wealthy group of voters, as well as born-again Christians (60 percent) and people who described themselves as conservatives (75 percent). The small towns that dot the North Carolina map also went overwhelmingly for Helms while the urban areas of Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham voted for Hunt.

"He ran negative ads against me for 20 months," Hunt says with another pained glance out the window. "After the first year the ads began to work well . . . During that time he was able to tear me down and get people to begin to see the race in his terms, Jesse Helms's race. Then it became a close race." Helms's ads set a new precedent for negative advertising. One ad repeatedly stressed Hunt's liberal connections by using pictures of Hunt with Jesse Jackson and Walter Mondale. Another ad, part of which was described as "actual news footage" of Jim Hunt "voting to raise your taxes," showed Hunt casting a vote in the state legislature. And a third ad portrayed Hunt as a union activist in a state that is one of the least unionized in the nation.

Since his defeat Hunt has pondered why North Carolina has elected Jesse Helms to the Senate three times.

With 40 percent of the vote in hand at the start of the race, Hunt says, Helms goes hunting for the remaining votes necessary to get him over 50 percent. To do it Helms has used the coattails of presidential candidates (Nixon in '72 and Reagan in '84) and he spends money on television commercials that make his opponent out to be the antithesis of what he calls "North Carolina values."

One of Helms's successful strategies during the 1984 campaign was to trumpet his opposition to the federal holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. "I think his approach really appealed to prejudice and fear," Hunt says. It worked. Black voters went for Hunt, but Helms noted after the election that "the governor was obviously counting on a somewhat heavier turnout of our black citizens."

"In a national race for president or U.S. senator," explains Hunt, "the issues become very value-laden and lend themselves to emotional appeals and manipulation of people's minds and hearts. Jesse Helms knows that and he uses it to win.

"His money comes from lots of people who want to maintain the status quo, in terms of the work force, living conditions, wages of workers . . . He also benefits from people who are scared by his direct-mail letters. Older people on Medicaid and Medicare, retirees on pensions -- Jesse Helms gets them in a frenzy. His direct mail convinces them dire things are going to happen to them unless Jesse Helms stands up for them."

Hunt thinks Harvey Gantt has a chance to win this year, given the state of the economy and the scandals in the savings and loan industry.

"This could be the time," says Hunt, pulling his hands together and gazing out the window again. "Helms can be beat, and there are a lot of folks out there who want to help Gantt."

CHARLOTTE FUNERAL DIRECTOR KELLY Miller Alexander Jr., head of the North Carolina NAACP, recalls that his father issued an invitation to Sen. Jesse Helms to address an NAACP convention in the early 1980s. "And then we got a call from his staff and they said the NAACP would be a quote hostile audience end quote."

Since then there has been little contact between the state's senior senator and the state's leading civil rights organization. About 19 percent of North Carolina's population is black, but "we really don't exist for Senator Helms," says Alexander.

"We have, generally speaking, a high level of integration in public," he says, pointing around the restaurant in downtown Charlotte where we are having lunch. "In the workplace there is no problem either, generally speaking. But by and large, once you get off work you go back to a segregated neighborhood. You go to a segregated church on Sunday . . . I think people involved in civil rights knew all along the social aspects would be the hardest to break down because you can't legislate it. And to be fair there is a lot of self-segregation on both sides."

Helms's relationship with the NAACP was strained badly in August. James Meredith, famed as the first black student to enter the University of Mississippi and now a member of Helms's Washington staff, put out a strange letter on Helms's stationery that said most NAACP members are involved with drugs. The letter was prompted by an NAACP statement in support of Washington's Mayor Marion Barry, then on trial on drug charges. When Helms was asked about Meredith's press release, he said there might be some truth to it.

"Helms's response to Meredith tells me he has had no evolution," says Alexander. "It is a shame. Whether you agree or not, a state politician ought to give the voters the courtesy of meeting, talking to them . . . We want to hear Jesse Helms firsthand. We want to know what he has to say, how he responds to questions from this part of his constituency . . . We are not interested in lynching him or any such thing. We are interested in why he has done certain things."

Among the "certain things" Alexander mentions are Helms's opposition to the King birthday bill and his "no" votes on spending for educational scholarships and social programs for the poor.

"Helms's politics is the politics of naysaying," Alexander concludes. "His is the politics of going backwards, stopping blacks and women from standing up."

IN MORE THAN 10 YEARS OF DEALING with Helms, Charlotte Brody, 42, the president of Planned Parenthood of Greater Charlotte, has stood up to Jesse Helms many times. Along the way, she has also come to believe that Helms is a very good politician, not the "comic book, right-wing doofus the left has made him out to be, but a really smart and well-organized man, and he has that sort of grace the South is famous for . . ."

At the base of his attraction for North Carolina's voters, Brody says, is a set of values that begins with sex and family life. The ideal Helms world, she believes, was 1950s North Carolina, when "the mother stayed home, the father worked, they had sex but the woman didn't say much about it . . . The man ran the family, the kids didn't talk back and they went to schools that worked, you didn't have to lock your door, and blacks knew their place."

Brody recalls that once when she was lobbying Helms on behalf of Planned Parenthood, she ran into him in the hallway of a Senate office building. She wanted to say a word to the senator about polls indicating 79 percent of North Carolinians opposed a constitutional amendment to ban all abortion and 78 percent believe abortion should be a private decision.

Brody began by saying, "Senator, you don't remember me but . . ." Helms stopped her. "Of course I remember you, pretty little girl. How are you?" As they walked along together, Brody told the senator that his position on abortion would not allow a woman who had become pregnant because of a rape to have an abortion.

"He stopped walking," Brody says, "and said to me, 'But Miss Brody, you know if a woman is truly raped she can't get pregnant.' I thought I didn't understand him so I asked him what he meant. And he said it again. 'Miss Brody, if a woman is raped she can't get pregnant. That is not possible.' "

Brody was speechless. She stopped walking. Helms said goodbye and walked on.

"What he thinks is that a woman must have an orgasm to get pregnant," Brody says now. "{He} doesn't believe that a woman who has been raped can get pregnant . . . It is the deepest distrust and ignorance about women."

AFTER I FINISH MY TOUR OF NORTH Carolina, I remember the promise I made to Jesse Helms: That I would come back to tell him what people were saying about him. I figure he doesn't need me to tell him what his admirers say, because he hears it all the time. And I know he knows where he stands with Harvey Gantt and Jim Hunt. But I do have one or two things to report.

I ask Helms about Kelly Alexander of the state NAACP. "He says that you've been invited to speak several times to various groups of black people and that you always say no, or you can't make it. But the bottom line is: You never ever speak to black people."

Helms doesn't miss a beat. He tells me that when it became apparent he had won the election in 1984, he began by "extending my hand to the black citizens of North Carolina." But, Helms says, "in a political campaign you go where your ducks are. And they endorsed Jim Hunt out of hand. What would it benefit me to go and speak to them?

"Now, I have met with hundreds of blacks individually. I must have met with 25 in twos and threes who came to me about personal problems and so on with the government. But the NAACP, frankly, is a Democratic adjunct, and they make it clear and the vote is about 98 percent."

I tell Helms that several people question his support for a nondemocratic government in South Africa. The senator denies that he supports the status quo there -- "It's not that anybody's in favor of apartheid" -- but expresses concern that blacks will destroy the country by fighting among themselves. He likens the situation in South Africa to contemporary Texas. "I wonder," he says, "if faced with the numerical odds, what Texas and others will do about Mexicans and others from Central and South America. They don't have to ride boats to come in. And it's happening."

I also ask Helms about Charlotte Brody of Planned Parenthood. "She said she came up to lobby you one day. You said, 'Well, you know, if a woman's raped, she really can't get pregnant.' And she said, 'No, that's not right.' And you said, 'I think that's right.' What do you really think?"

The senator replies, "I don't say that she's misrepresenting because I don't know what she said to you. But I know what I've said to many people was that a study had been made of three states . . . I remember California was one of them, over a two-year period, and the report I read said that not one rape resulted in a pregnancy because for the people who were raped they went to the hospital and they had what amounted to a D&C.

"But I always said that even if it occurs, it's still a baby's life you're talking about. Now they leave out the little essentials -- at least they're essentials to me. But I don't remember a conversation with her. I've had so many conversations."

The senator says he does recall a meeting with a group of pro-choice professors from Duke University and the University of North Carolina who harangued him for half an hour one day. Then he launches into a provocative anecdote: "I remember one lady . . . I went down to Palm Beach, Florida, to speak in a seminar on foreign relations. I didn't know I was being picketed. When I came out they had a car there to rush me to Miami to catch a plane because there was not a plane back to Washington or Raleigh or wherever I was returning to from Palm Beach that night and I could not spend the night so they had arranged to take me to the airport. Henry Kissinger had spoken the month before and I was there to offset him.

"Anyway, there the pickets were. And I saw them over there and they tried to rush my car and everywhere there were pickets. I go over and say hello. I did it in Dunn; I've done it three or four times in this campaign this year. I said, Look, we disagree on abortion or whatever it is that's on your mind, but let's be friends anyhow. And most of the time they will -- sometimes grudgingly -- stick out their hand or sometimes not.

"But there was this enormous woman, and I remember she had on the tightest slacks I ever saw, and I stuck out my hand and she spat on it. I mean a big blob right there. And I took out my handkerchief and got it off and I handed her the handkerchief and I said, 'You may want to keep this as a souvenir. I know this is a proud day for you.' And she took it. And I said, 'Excuse me, ladies, I've got to go to Miami and catch a plane.'

"And the car was waiting with the door open and it was beginning to rain a little bit and the well-wishers held me up for maybe a minute or a minute and a half as I proceeded to the car, and when I got to the car, there was that great big lady standing there like a tackle on a football team, and she said, 'I have one question for you.'

"And I said, 'Yes, ma'am?'

"She said, 'Why is it you're so obsessed with controlling my body?'

"And the television cameras moved in and I smiled at her and I said, 'Lady, somewhere in this broad land there may be someone less interested in your body than I am. And now if you'll please stand aside and let me get in the car.' "

WHEN I FIRST MET JESSE HELMS, I assured him that his views on race were just part of the story I was looking to tell. In fact, after spending a couple of months traveling all across North Carolina, I have come to believe that race is the predominant factor in the election. The issue surfaced time and again, naturally and openly, with people for and against Jesse Helms. Hoover Adams, Ray House, Carter Wrenn and other Helms stalwarts underscored the importance of race in this election.

But I have also come to believe that the broader story is about what Helms often refers to as "North Carolina values," and the real question is: Does Jesse Helms truly embody those values that most North Carolinians hold dear?

What Helms has done is taken the words "North Carolina values" -- a beautiful phrase that evokes the small-town, good-hearted sense of place that one feels when one travels the state -- and redefined them as the values belonging to a certain group of North Carolinians, mostly white, mostly male, mostly unhappy with the changes of the last 30 years. To Helms and his supporters, "North Carolina values" seems to translate into a status quo view of the world in which blacks, women and poor people know their stations in society. "North Carolina values," as interpreted by Helms, boil down to Us versus Them.

Talking to the people of North Carolina, I came to see that Helms's version of those who threaten "North Carolina values" includes the people at the universities, people from out of state (particularly Northerners), people from big cities -- including Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham, people who are black, women who don't want to be housewives, people who believe abortion is a personal decision, people who are gay, people who want unions and anyone who is willing to shake up the established order to fight for social equality in America.

But of all the conversations I had on Helms's home turf, the one that stays with me the most is one that I had with William Friday, a serious student of North Carolina politics and former president of the University of North Carolina.

Friday, a professorial man with a wrinkled face and a shock of gray hair, met with me on the UNC campus. After finding a Coke machine and a table in the depths of the student lounge, he began talking about this year's Senate race as a battle between the state's love of old-line values and a creeping unease that attention to old-line values has not helped the state avoid being near the bottom of the nation in high school graduates, SAT scores, wages and job training and among the highest in infant mortality.

"One million of the 7 million people in this state live in poverty," he said. "Eight hundred thousand don't have literacy skills. Forty-five percent of our 16- to 45-year-olds have not completed high school requirements . . . Any candidate who has a creative solution or some way of dealing with these problems is going to get a good response . . . All this is fermenting in the minds of young people down here. Our state's sense of pride is affected when we come up last in everything. What's new is that this thing is forcing itself into the politics of the state and it will not go away."

In a changing North Carolina, where talk about "North Carolina values" in television and radio ads can no longer cover the lack of opportunity for people who are not getting good educations in elementary and high school, Friday believes the political winds may be shifting direction.

"At heart, what you'll find out across this state today is people saying they want the wherewithal to live a full life, to give their children a chance to live a full life. That's all I've been hearing. The most endangered asset in the state is its human resources. Our people have not been treated well."

Friday stopped there and changed the topic of conversation. A good Southern gentleman, he did not mention the name Jesse Helms.