A jubilant Jimmy Carter swept into the Smokies of western North Carolina five days after concluding the Camp David summit to confront the difficulty of translating that personal triumph into help for embattled Democratic candidates.
On his Sept. 22 visit to Asheville, the president was radiantly self-confident and his speeches reminiscent of their 1976 pre-convention form. But it is doubtful that Carter significantly helped the candidates he came to support. The feeling in North Carolina, before and after his visit, was that the president could generate extra campaign funds here - and little more.
Presidents usually have found it difficult to affect midterm elections, and Carter has a special problem. Despite his renewed popularity after Camp David, embracing the president's liberal domestic program is risky business for candidates in an anti-tax, anti-government atmosphere.
North Carolina is especially important because of Sen. Jesse Helms, a rigidly conservative Republican targeted for defeat by the Democratic Party's national hierarchy. National Chairman John White has taken special interest in this Senate race, bracketing Helms with Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and John Tower of Texas as "radical right" senators to be defeated.
One problem with White's strategy is that North Carolinians simply do not regard Helms as a "radical" six years after he leaped from right-wing television commentator into the U.S. Senate. "Jsesse is generally thought of as a fine, Christian gentleman even by people who don't agree with him," one prominent Democrat confided to us.
Another, bigger problem is his opponent: State Insurance Commissioner John Ingram, a plutocrat-baiting, Bible-quoting populist who upset banker Luther Hodges Jr. in the Democratic primary. The Democratic establishment's contempt for Ingram is typified by this private assessment by one politician close to Gov. Jim Hunt: "To be blunt, Ingram is irresponsible and demogogic."
Ingram's money-starved campaign sounds more like the early 1930s than the late 1970s, with the candidate declaring "this fight against the special interests." He says nothing about inflation, refuses to take a position on tax limitation or the Kemp-Roth tax-reduction bill and concentrates on blasting Helms as "the $5-million man" because of his campaign war chest. To establishment Democrats, that will not unseat Helms.
The purpose of the president's visit was to put a few coins in Ingram's empty treasury. Carter and Hunt nudged their rich friends, appalled by Ingram, into buying $500-a-couple tickets to a steak dinner at the distinctly non-populist Biltmore Estate in Asheville. Added to the program was an airport rally for freshman Rep. Lamar Gudger, who faces a tight reelection battle.
Next came the customary bickering between the White House and local politicians. The president's men demanded that the Gudger rally be held at the airport instead of downtown Asheville, where a much bigger crowd would have gathered. They also insisted the president's speech include a proposal to make North Carolina a "rural laboratory," which Democrats here correctly forecast would be lost in the hoopla.
Such trivia was eclipsed by the Mideast summit. Ingram became markedly more enthusiastic about Carter, proclaiming, "This week we have seen the handiwork [a] great president of the United States who is leading us out of moral depression." Hunt, a long-time Carter booster, believes Ingram should now tie his campaign to the president.
But Helms's blanket opposition to Carter legislation is so popular that Democrats have stopped calling him "Senator No." Rep. Gudger's Republican opponent, Buncombe County Board Chairman Curtis Ratcliff, in a speech the day of the president's visit attacked Gudger's 70 percent pro-Carter voting record.
Hunt's proposed solution: identify with the budget-balancing, government-limiting Carter. The president made that course easier in Asheville by reaffirming his pledge "to get government's nose out of the people's business." But like Ingram, he sidestepped the public's preoccupations by not mentioning inflation or tax reduction.
After forgetting to acknowledge Ingram at the airport rally, the president was lavish for him at the Biltmore Estate fundraiser. "He [Ingram] may not be as sophisticated as some of you," Carter told the well-heeled audience, "but neither am I." He then proceeded to draw some strained comparisons between Jimmy Carter and John Ingram.
But the president did not give Ingram's supporters what they wanted most: a frontal attack on Helms. Carter did not mention him. The general perception that Ingram trails for the Senate and Gudger could lose for Congress was left unchanged by the presidential visit. Even after Camp David, midterm coattails are hard to find.