The race for the Senate seat from North Carolina is going into its final days characterized by a drama and tension lacking in the presidential race.
The once mild-mannered Gov. James B. Hunt has turned into a scrappy street fighter, throwing tough punches at his Republican opponent, Sen. Jesse Helms.
In a single news conference here today, Hunt charged Helms with: Making "desperate attempts to label me a liar and blanket the state of North Carolina with distortions and negative ads." Supporting a bill that "would ban birth-control devices, or pills, that work after conception." "Orchestrating a cover-up of a federal investigation" into his campaign finance activities. Helms' lawyers have gone to court in an attempt to stall a Federal Election Commission (FEC) probe. "Backing right-wing extremists around the world" and consorting with "Jerry Falwell, Phyllis Schlafly, Texas oil billionaires, Nelson Bunker Hunt and the rest of the right wing."
Helms, who broadcast his first campaign ad 19 months ago, hasn't been sitting still. A new commercial on the air features his wife, Dot, accusing Hunt of being "disgusting and dishonest." And today the senator brought his campaign against "naysayers, appeasers and compromisers" in Congress to Wilson County, Hunt's home territory.
A telephone poll last week by the independent Wilson Daily Times newspaper put Helms slightly ahead in Wilson County, 46 to 42 percent, which caused a grinning Helms to hold aloft the newspaper front page at his rally today. Hunt, at a rally in Wilson on Monday, dismissed the poll as statistically unreliable.
Wilson Mayor Ralph W. El Ramey, a Democrat, said he is surprised that Helms did as well as reported in the poll but, like many others, he said the race is too close to call.
"What bothers me is that I met more and more people in the past two or three weeks who say they are disgusted with both of them," he said. Referring especially to the high-saturation war of television commercials, Ramey said, "It all seems so negative and so wrong."
Helms' appearance this morning at the city recreation center drew about 150 people plus a high school band. Several times that number appeared at an earlier rally at night, a better campaigning hour here.
Speaking in a conversational manner that contrasted with his harsh words, Helms attacked the Soviet Union and labor "union bosses in the United States," extolled the tobacco-support program and emphasized the need for prayer in public schools.
He referred constantly to his closeness to and affection for President Reagan.
A Charlotte Observer poll published this week showed Helms holding onto a narrow lead in the race. But the strain of a long campaign is beginning to show on him.
When protesters greeted him today at Wake Forest University, his alma mater, he accused the Hunt campaign of orchestrating them in an attempt to embarrass him.
When Helms was asked about Hunt later he ridiculed the governor. "Jim Hunt is a very promising young man," Helms said. "He promises everything."
The campaign took a back seat today to preparations for the execution of convicted murderer Margie Velma Barfield Friday morning. Hunt had refused to grant her clemency and repeated today that he saw no circumstances under which he would have done so. He said he had "no idea what the political impact of my decision will be."
Referring to the $21 million that the latest FEC reports say the campaign has cost, Hunt said, "That money ought to go to poor folks or to make schools better or to do other good things in this country. If I get to the Senate, I'm not going to rest until I've done everything I can to see that this state and other states don't have to go through this kind of campaign ever again."