U.S. Senate candidate David Funderburk turned up here the other night expecting to wage his battle for "the heart and soul of the Republican Party" in a speech to the Gaston County Lincoln Day dinner.
His hosts had other plans.
Local party leaders chose to have him cool his heels all night in the audience, figuring that, as one put it, "If he wants to rough up one of ours, no sense giving him a stage to do it on."
The elbowing is part of a nasty primary battle that has broken out between Funderburk and his heavily favored opponent, Rep. James T. Broyhill (R-N.C.), over which brand of Republicanism will prevail in a southern state that is moving, in fits and starts, toward a genuine two-party alignment. It may also be a preview of fissures that could weaken the GOP nationally as a once homogeneous "country club" party passes into the post-Reagan era, confronted with the growing pains created by a new coalition of disparate constituents.
Funderburk, 41, a university professor, former ambassador to Romania and protege of Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), is running as the "true conservative," and his ads have an angry edge as he inveighs against communism, abortion and the celebration of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.
Broyhill, 58, a businessman's Republican whose 23 years representing this Piedmont district make him the dean of the state GOP House delegation, talks about the tamer subjects of job creation and deficit reduction -- and as little as he can about his opponent, whom he has refused to debate. The congressman says he is one of the "5 or 10 percent" most conservative members of the House, but makes no apologies for a legislative record that has always been more pragmatic than doctrinaire.
Their fight is a one part cultural and stylistic, one part ideological, and all parts power politics.
For more than a decade, the traditional Republican Party organization in North Carolina has stood partly in the shadow of the National Congressional Club, a direct-mail and mass-media machine created by a handful of New Right strategists in 1972 to elect Helms to the Senate.
The club was one of the first to specialize in the modern "attack ad," a technique that proved so effective in 1980 that it was able to pluck university professor John P. East from obscurity to elect him to the Senate; and in 1984 to elect Helms to a third term by battering Helms' popular opponent, two-term Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt, in the most expensive Senate campaign in the nation.
East, who is ailing, has chosen not to seek reelection, so his seat is up for grabs.
Republicans are unaccustomed to having Congressional Club attacks trained on one of their own. But now, the Funderburk campaign is using one television advertisement that shows Broyhill looking "old, fat and shifty-eyed," in the words of Broyhill media adviser Brad Hayes. A Funderburk direct-mail ad accuses the congressman of voting for "tax funded abortions; Tip O'Neill's big-spending budget; to pay Panama to take our Canal; to cut Ronald Reagan's defense programs; to increase Food Stamp spending $620 million; and for two senators for the city of Washington, D.C." It goes on to refer five times to Broyhill's vote for the King holiday. Funderburk says he opposes the holiday as too costly.
Broyhill supporters are incensed. "I tried telling those boys they're picking on the wrong guy," said J.A. Dalpiaz of Gastonia, a founding member of the Congressional Club and longtime Helms supporter. Dalpiaz said he and many of his friends have withdrawn their financial support from the club because it is taking on Broyhill, whose conservative credentials they consider pristine.
"They say they're running against him for ideological purity, but the real reason is that they want to keep their pump primed," he added. "They need that seat in the Senate to raise money nationally. A congressional seat or even a governor's office doesn't do it for them. The Senate is their base and they need a guy they can control."
Many say they think this is the year for the club's comeuppance. It has suffered the same slackening of fund-raising success that has afflicted other direct mail-houses on the New Right, and as a result, Funderburk's attack ads have only run occasionally on television.
Moreover, Republican primaries have generally been the wrong battlefield for club candidates. They do much better in general elections in this state, when they can appeal to "Jesse-crats" -- rural, poor Eastern Carolina Democrats who have never bothered to change party affiliation, but who share Helms' antiestablishment anger.
The state's 785,000 registered Republicans tend to be better-heeled and more establishmentarian, and most live either in the Piedmont or in the suburbs of fast-growing Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh. An estimated 50,000 new Republicans were registered in 1984 by fundamentalist churches, however, and Funderburk is hoping they will come out to vote in an off-year primary.
Broyhill said he is determined to ignore the attacks and stay positive; he currently enjoys enough lead in the polls to keep on that course through the May primary.
But if Broyhill were to attack, Funderburk dealt him a huge potential issue in the first days of his campaign. Speaking on abortion, Funderburk told a reporter that "every individual has to draw his own conclusions" and "it's something we shouldn't impose on other people." The next day he retracted his statements and said he opposed abortion in all instances except threat to the life of the mother.
Funderburk has since received the endorsement of North Carolina right-to-life groups. But the gaffe is made to order for a flip-flop television commercial, and many here say they think it wasn't a gaffe at all. "I think he was expressing his true feelings, then got yanked into line by the club," said state Rep. Ray Warren (R-Charlotte).
Democrats are hoping that the GOP infighting will help them win back the seat, but at the moment, it is by no means clear whether their party, still reeling from Hunt's loss to Helms in 1984, can capitalize.
Several big-name Democrats passed up the chance to run for the open Senate seat, producing months of headlines here about a field of "second-stringers." Finally, former governor and retired Duke University president Terry Sanford, 68, entered the race last month, after having said no. He heads a 10-candidate Democratic field, but faces skepticism about his electability in the fall.
"He projects exactly the wrong kind of image for the Democrats in this state," said Merle Black, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina. "You can almost hear the Republicans now painting him as a 1960s-style liberal.