CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Recalling the time he came out of the closet and joined the Republican Party after 28 years as a registered Democrat, Sen. Jesse Helms said in 1975 that the "vast majority of Republicans are conservatives." The vastness was such, he warned, that if his soul mates were not offered what he saw as the three essential conservative principles -- "honesty, frugality and hard work" -- they "will desert or simply stay home, or they will look for those who do articulate those principles."

Some of that deserting, home-staying and looking elsewhere appear to be on the rise in the last days of Helms' reelection campaign for the Senate. A Charlotte Observer poll, completed Oct. 18, put Harvey Gantt, the Democratic candidate, with an 8-point lead -- 49-41 -- over Helms. Gantt, once a long shot, now has a good shot.

Helms is helping by becoming a parody of himself. The Senate's most mindless gay-basher, who has a mini-career hounding homosexuals for what they do in private, now attacks them for public acts: contributing money to Gantt's campaign. That has the nation's arbiter of bedroom morals in a fury. A Helms television ad warns voters that lesbians and gays have been kicking in to Gantt's campaign. In a speech in Fayetteville, Helms announced that "They're taking up money in gay bars in Washington, D.C., San Francisco and New York."

Two years ago, in a venting about "this homosexual crowd," Helms the moralist was Helms the medical expert: "Let me tell you something about this AIDS epidemic. There is not one single case of AIDS reported in this country that cannot be traced in origin to sodomy."

The Nobel Prize in medicine has gone to people with lesser claims on discovering the causes of diseases. That sodomy is the only origin of AIDS comes as news to patients who become sick from unclean needles, contaminated blood or in utero infections. James O. Mason, M.D., the assistant secretary for health in the Department of Health and Human Services, reported in early October that "increasingly, AIDS is a disease that is affecting women and children, our racial and ethnic minority populations, heterosexuals and people living in smaller cities."

All debates in Washington have three sides: right, wrong and ranting. Helms' vigilance on the sodomy watch positions him as a leading ranter. However many votes that may win in North Carolina, it brings him mostly losses in the Senate. In an Oct. 12 debate on AIDS funding, two Helms amendments -- to cut spending on treatment and research -- were defeated 70-24 and 69-23. Such "vast majority" conservatives as Sens. Orrin Hatch, Alphonse D'Amato, Connie Mack and John Warner all rejected Helms' bizarre claim that AIDS spending is "far out of control."

Helms has an addiction to blathering overstatement. He has called food stamps "one of the most outrageously expensive and most abused programs in the history of the country." He smeared Martin Luther King Jr. as a communist dupe and, feeling a pinched reactionary nerve, attacked Ronald Reagan for ignoring the full-moon right: "The people who fought and bled and died for Reagan have not been listened to. He's got to remember who took him to the dance." In eight years, Helms never figured out that Reagan couldn't remember much of anything, on or off the dance floor.

In foreign affairs, the senator has the softest of hearts -- for dictators and racists. He praised the murderous Pinochet regime of Chile and lamented the overthrow of Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua. The apartheid government of South Africa is "a friend," with economic sanctions "a kick in the teeth."

To Helms, the core of America's problem is the media: "The real threat to freedom, the real threat to freedom of speech and the real threat to our constitutional system is on our TV screens every evening and on the front pages of our newspapers every day." Perhaps to have some sport with that, the progressive Charlotte Observer recently ran at the top of its op-ed page a fawning pro-Helms column by James Kilpatrick, titled: "Jesse Helms: An Admirable Man of Unwavering Principle."

Helms' tirades against media unfairness are as consistently unfounded as all his others. Strung together, they have made him the most irrelevant member of the U.S. Senate.