RALEIGH, N.C., MAY 31 -- For three weeks, the runoff battle between Harvey Gantt and Mike Easley for the Democratic Senate nomination here had no issues, no ads, no polls, no charges, no intrigue -- no nothing.
Suddenly, just five days before the vote, the sleepy campaign has come alive. In the past 24 hours:
Easley, 40, a drug-busting district attorney from Southport, has gone on television with an ad that makes an issue of the refusal of Gantt, a former mayor of Charlotte seeking to become the first black Democrat elected to the Senate, to rule out a gasoline tax increase.
Gantt, 47, has accused Easley of "slipping over into Senator Jesse Helms's pasture" by playing up such "hot-button" issues as flag-burning, the death penalty and funding for obscene art. Gantt takes the more liberal stance on all these matters, but calls them "secondary" and says he wants to keep the campaign focused on his support for using a $150 billion to $300 billion "peace dividend" from the end of the Cold War to fund education, health care, environmental and drug programs. Republican Helms, who has no runoff opponent in the GOP primary, has parachuted into the middle of the Democratic fray. A Helms television spot accuses both Democratic candidates of being hypocritical for attacking him while they are claiming to run clean campaigns, and radio spots attack Easley for his use of plea bargaining as a prosecutor and Gantt for his opposition to the death penalty.
"We just couldn't take the risk of staying quiet while those two guys pounded on us," said Helms campaign manager Carter Wrenn. Helms will spend more on media between now and Tuesday's runoff than Easley or Gantt, both of whom have been running on a shoestring.
Two polls due to be published Friday help explain the flurry of activity. In Friday's Charlotte Observer, a poll will show Gantt leading Easley by 42 percent to 32 percent; in Friday's Greensboro News and Record, a Mason-Dixon poll will show Gantt ahead by 46 percent to 41 percent.
The Mason-Dixon poll also will show that both Gantt and Easley have for the first time pulled even with Helms in the fall matchups.
On paper, that would make Helms the most vulnerable Senate incumbent seeking reelection this year, but state GOP Chairman Jack Hawke cautioned against making too much of the early polls. "There are very few politicians in America who can win with as big a negative against him as Senator Helms always has," he said. "His secret is that as many people who don't like him, there are even more who admire him as a rare politician of conscience."
Both Easley and Gantt argue that the end of the Cold War will make Helms's hard-line anti-communism irrelevant and that a campaign waged in a non-presidential year will tilt the turnout in a Democratic direction.
Only one Democrat will survive next week's runoff to test that shared hypothesis, however. Gantt led the first primary with a 38 percent to 30 percent margin over Easley in a six-man field last month, and now he is determined to disprove what he derisively calls the "CW" (conventional wisdom) that a black statewide candidate cannot win a runoff primary in which he must capture a majority, not just a plurality, of the vote.
The key to Tuesday's balloting is the shape and size of the turnout, and many observers here think that if it is low enough Gantt may indeed defy the CW. Although about 24 percent of the state's Democratic registered voters are black, the low anticipated white turnout and the intensity of Gantt's black support could mean that blacks will comprise 30 percent or more of the runoff electorate.
At a debate taped Wednesday for statewide broadcast on Saturday, Gantt appeared to have created a tactical opening for Easley by asserting that he would "be open to" a deficit reduction plan of the sort advocated earlier this year by Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.). That plan included a basket of taxes as well as cuts in defense spending and a freeze of Social Security cost-of-living adjustments.
Easley countered that he would flatly rule out the gas, cigarette and alcohol tax increases included in the Rostenkowski proposal because they are regressive. Today he began airing a television ad saying that a vote for him is a vote against new gas taxes. In the spirit of civility that has prevailed during the primary, the ad goes not mention Gannt, but one Easley adviser said, "We'll let the news media make the reference for us."
If Easley appears to have found a tactically effective closing theme, he has not been above a misstep or two. At a speech today to a Democratic women's group here, he asserted that the Rostenkowski proposal for a gas tax increase would cost "the secretary who works in my office $200 a month." When startled reporters queried him on his numbers afterward, he reworked the math in his head and sheepishly admitted: "I figured wrong."