Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) is telling supporters he has money troubles, and he also seems to have trouble in the polls in his race against former Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt (D). A Charlotte Observer poll published yesterday shows Helms trailing Gantt, 44 to 40 percent.

Especially encouraging for Gantt, who is black, is the poll's finding that 35 percent of white voters support him. Helms was supported by 50 percent of white voters. Democratic strategists calculate that Gantt needs to win close to 40 percent of the white vote to defeat Helms.

The day after Gantt won his party's nomination, Helms sent a letter targeting Gantt. It also said Helms did not have money to run his campaign.

"My opponent is Harvey Gantt," the senator wrote June 6. "His campaign is backed by the powerful homosexual political lobby. . . . With the primary over, the homosexuals, the so-called 'arts' community, the ACLU {American Civil Liberties Union} and the union bosses are really on the attack."

In the letter, sent in a yellow envelope marked "High Priority Gram," Helms asked for $17 "right away . . . by no later than June 13 if possible."

He said his campaign, which had raised $5.7 million as of April, "spent every penny" and needed $125,000. "We can't buy the ads we need now unless we raise the money," Helms wrote. "We have to make payments to TV and radio stations by that date."

Checks of television stations in Charlotte and Raleigh last Thursday by the Charlotte Observer showed no purchases of air time by the Helms campaign. "We haven't raised the $125,000 from this letter to get back on the air," Helms spokeswoman Beth Burrus said.