CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Concern that black, liberal-talking Democrat Harvey Gantt is building unstoppable momentum against Sen. Jesse Helms' bid for a fourth term has prompted an SOS sent to Ronald Reagan for a dramatic campaign-closing extravaganza to save this state's dominant Republican for the past 18 years.

It was Helms who brought Reagan's presidential campaign back from disaster in the 1976 North Carolina primary, a rescue that probably made the ex-president's 1980 nomination possible. A close adviser to Helms told us the Gipper will be asked to give "one more for Jesse." To keep the giant of Republican conservatism in the Senate another six years at a time of venomous party discord, the former president might say yes.

That demonstrates Helms's vulnerability to the 47-year-old former two-term mayor of Charlotte. Unlike earlier Helms opponents, Gantt wears the liberal Democratic mantle proudly. He trumpets his agenda around the state, asking voters to chose "my values over Sen. Helms."'

Gantt opposes the death penalty, opposes legal restraints on abortion, opposes pornography tests on art financed by the National Endowment for the Arts, opposes an anti-flag burning constitutional amendment and opposes the B-2 bomber. "I said last week that we should spend more on education than the B-2," Gantt told us, "and I got applause. Times are changing, because that wouldn't have happened here in 1984."

That was the year Jesse Helms posted a respectable 4-point margin over popular Gov. Jim Hunt, even though most polls showed him behind for most of the race. But Hunt's strategy inadvertently played to Helms' strength. Fearful of being tarnished as a liberal, Hunt boasted that he was "a Southern conservative" in a debate with Helms

This year, there are no debates. Like other congressional incumbents, the 69-year-old Helms has been victimized by the endless budget follies. He has scarcely had time to put in a campaign appearance. Indeed, the Helms campaign seems non-existent. Hardly a bumper sticker did we see driving through the North Carolina heartland. In a state that exults in hearty politics, Helms' campaign is undernourished.

Even so, a packed Republican house turned out in Randolph County's Asheboro Thursday night for a festive campaign finale at which Helms was to have been the star performer. Once again, the budget fight kept him in Washington.

His wife, Dot, substituted, linking Gantt to what she called an explicit rendering in a homosexual magazine showing Helms and George Bush "in the act of sex." Gantt's alleged tie to gays and lesbians is the money the homosexual lobby, which detests Helms, has raised for the Democrat's campaign.

Helms' television commercials, relatively moderate in tone until this week, started a new 30-second spot on Gantt's homosexual support. It charges him with raising "thousands of dollars in gay and lesbian bars in San Francisco, New York and Washington," closing with the line: "Harvey Gantt: too liberal for North Carolina." A Helms strategist said the attack on Gantt would help "if people care, and if they watch TV. ... But will they? Frankly, I don't know."

One reason Helms' time-tested use of negative ads might not work this year is Gantt's own phenomenal spending on television. Since he won the primary runoff in June, he has matched Helms dollar for dollar. Helms's aides expect a tidal wave of $150,000 worth of Gantt spots the last week over a single station, Charlotte's WBT.

So concerned is Republican Gov. Jim Martin that he told us if the Republicans fail to get their vote to the polls, Gantt's minimum 90 percent of the black vote combined with between 36 percent and 40 percent of the white vote will make him North Carolina's -- and the South's -- first elected black senator.

Getting the Republican faithful to the polls may not be easy. They are furious at President Bush for mishandling the budget and economy and may stay home and pout.

Moreover, signs abound that even some Republicans think Helms is wearing thin. "He's been around a long time," a Randolph County Republican supporter of Helms told us at the party dinner, "Maybe too long." No wonder they want help from the Gipper.

1990, Creators Syndicate Inc.