By the calendar, it is still more than two years away.
But this is one of those political donnybrooks where the grudges are too old, the passions too deep, the stakes too high, the history too rich, the campaign technologies too honed and the money too bountiful to wait on the calendar.
So it is already in full sprint, the 1984 North Carolina Senate race pitting Sen. Jesse Helms (R), embattled archangel of the New Right, against Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. (D), ambitious New South progressive.
It will be, both sides solemnly insist, the second most important race in the nation in 1984. It almost certainly will be the second best-financed.
Helms, who now is well behind in the early head-to-head polls, opened the hostilities a year ago by dipping into the $10 million war chest of the Congressional Club, his national fund-raising machine, to wage a paid media war against a gasoline tax increase proposed by Hunt.
The governor won that fight, and he returned the favor this summer by permitting his loyalists to set up a political action committee, the North Carolina Campaign Fund. It is unapologetically modeled on the Congressional Club, to raise money nationwide to defeat Helms in 1984.
"I think we're riding a rocket," says Michael McCloud, a vice president of Craver, Matthews, Smith and Co., the liberal direct-mail house that will send out the new PAC's first wave of 50,000 letters next week. "Nobody since Nixon gets a progressive's bile going like Helms."
These early skirmishes, sure to intensify, are part of a larger drama that stars Helms and Hunt as the current antagonists in a generation-old vendetta in North Carolina politics, a battle of the Old South of racial disharmony and anti-Washington populism against the New South of economic growth and booming university research centers.
The progressives held the upper hand in that struggle until 1972, when Helms, riding the Nixon landslide and his own popularity as a conservative radio and television commentor, won an open Senate seat.
Since then, he has become not only the keeper of the New Right flame in the Senate, but also Mr. GOP in his state, using the proceeds from his national direct-mail funding base to recruit candidates and wage negative media campaigns that have thinned the ranks of moderates and progressives in the North Carolina congressional delegation.
"They've used the Big Lie technique and gotten away with it," says Hunt, 45, a second-term governor who is positioning himself in the political spectrum as a blend of Lyndon Johnson and Gary Hart.
"They turned a superhawk like Bob [former senator Robert W.] Morgan into a dove by using his Panama Canal vote," says former representative Richardson Preyer, chairman of the North Carolina Campaign Fund, whose board includes former governor Terry Sanford and former senator Sam Ervin. Preyer was referring to Morgan's 1980 defeat at the hands of Helms' protege, Sen. John East (R-N.C.).
"We don't like their substance and we don't like their tactics and we're tired of getting rolled," added Preyer, who himself was beaten by a Congressional Club candidate in 1980.
The fund will conduct research on Helms, poring over some 7,200 editorials he delivered in his pre-Senate days for particularly inflammatory prose, and it will build a direct-mail list that can be turned over to Hunt once he formally becomes a candidate.
It has no hope of matching the Congressional Club dollar for dollar. Helms' PAC will raise $10 million for this election and should be positioned to collect $15 million for 1984, though more than two-thirds of the money is plowed back into the cost of fund-raising.
One of the secrets of the Congressional Club-style of fund-raising on "hot button," or emotional social, issues is that the harder its champions fall -- Helms took some massive spills on abortion and school prayer on the floor of the Senate this month -- the faster the checks pour in.
So the money will assuredly be there for Helms. But money, says a Hunt camp that is spoiling for the fight, is all that Jesse Helms will have in 1984 and money alone cannot save him.
They view him as a zealot who has served his national fund-raising constituency before he has served his state, and in the process left himself open to attack on the pocketbook issues where most votes in North Carolina are cast.
"People are wondering whether he is putting North Carolina first," says Hunt.
Confidence, bordering on cockiness, abounds these days in the Hunt camp. "If we don't win it'll be because we were stupid," says the governor's press secretary, Gary Pearce. A poll taken this spring by the University of North Carolina's journalism school showed Hunt leading Helms, 52-to-33 percent as the choice for senator.
Pearce outlined the theme of an anti-Helms campaign: "This guy is making enemies for you and your state every day on the floor of the Senate."
They will argue that the tobacco subsidy program, so vital to the state's largest crop, is on shaky ground because Helms, even with his chairmanship of the Senate Agricultural Committee, has surrendered his clout in the Senate to play the gadfly's role on social issues.
They will delight in repeating the denuciations of Helms by conservatives such as Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.).
And they will spare no expense to remind people that Helms and East switched their votes to provide the margin of victory for President Reagan's $98 billion tax package this summer, a package that doubled the federal excise tax on cigarettes. The week of that vote, the state Democratic Party took out a full page ad with pictures of Helms and East captioned: "The Tobacco Tax Twins."
The Helms side is not unaware of its gathering vulnerabilities.
"I'm not about to say we haven't been hurt," says Thomas Ellis, a folksy Raleigh lawyer who chairs the Congressional Club and is Helms' closest political adviser. "But when you have a big voter registration against you and when all the papers in the state are after you, it's always uphill."
"The papers claim Jesse Helms is an embarrassment to the state; hell, Claude Sitton is an embarrassment to me," Ellis continued, referring to the editor of the Raleigh News and Observer, a paper that goes after Helms ("Senator No" on its editorial pages) week in and week out. "That's just another way of saying you don't agree with someone."
Ellis finds it ironic that the Democrats, after making a fuss for years of Helms' bringing in out-of-state money to fund local campaigns, are now trying their hand at the same technology. "Frankly, I'm surprised they didn't do it a long time ago."
Hunt, a bit defensively, says the nationwide appeals are needed to "fight fire with fire." His former campaign manager, Joseph Grimsley, adds, "To beat Jesse Helms is going to take more money than North Carolinians can put up on their own." The Hunt side thinks it will need $10 million.
Ellis agrees that Hunt is going to need a big war chest, noting that running for senate rather than govenor means he "won't have judgeships to give out." He depicts Hunt as a practiced player of the patronage game; the Helms campaign can be expected to raise cronyism charges in a race against Hunt.
But will they stick? Hunt is a popular figure in the state. He has kept his nose clean in six years in office, developed a strong county-based political organization, and made a record of attracting new industry. All along, he has kept his right flank protected, staking out hard-line positions on crime and capital punishment.
With two years to go and some hard decisions on state budgets still left to make, the Hunt camp is convinced the governor's image with the electorate is sharply defined and rock solid; that nothing Helms might throw at him will stick.
Indeed, their biggest concern these days is not what Helms might do, but what he might not do. Hunt is counting on slaying the dragon to propel himself onto the national stage in 1984. That game plan, of course, calls for the cooperation of the dragon.
Suppose Helms reads the polls and decides to pass up a tough reelection campaign in 1984 in favor of a glorious crusader's run at the White House? "That," said one of the governor's confidants, "would disappoint us very much."