The name of a think tank in Durham, N.C., was reported incorrectly in an article yesterday about the North Carolina Senate race. It is the Institute for Southern Studies. (Published 10/31/90)

DURHAM, N.C., OCT. 29 -- An angry and frustrated Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) began a last-ditch effort today to regain control of an election campaign that has been defined in large part by Harvey Gantt, his black, liberal Democratic opponent.

Helms ran into trouble almost immediately. At his first event today, an outdoor news conference in the driveway of an office building here, Helms was clearly thrown off stride by a protester who demanded to know why he had voted for the savings and loan cleanup legislation. Trembling and with his voice shaking, the 69-year-old Helms, who prides himself on his elaborate southern manners, ended up pushing the questioner away from a microphone.

The embarrassing incident began just after Helms boasted of blocking passage of an unidentified bill he claimed would have cost $800 million.

"I wish you'd done that for the S&L bailout, Jesse, that's $500 billion," shouted Marty Leary, a researcher at the Institute for Southern Politics, a liberal think tank. Taken aback, Helms replied: "Well, I tried to warn you liberal Democrats."

After some additional exchanges, Helms told his supporters in the crowd "never to be rude, be courteous," and invited Leary, 25, to the front. "I'll give you one minute to have your say," Helms announced.

Leary had been at the microphone for 36 seconds when Helms pushed him aside. "Your minute is up. . . . Goodbye," he said.

Helms visibly shook as he declared: "That's the way they double talk. . . . I don't know whether this is any time to make a speech." He then briefly turned the program over to an aide.

Helms's troubles today encapsulated a campaign that began with most Democrats and Republicans privately declaring Gantt a sacrificial lamb, and that is ending as one of the closest races in the nation. It is a contest in which Helms, who entered politics working for a segregationist gubernatorial candidate and who led the battle against making Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday, is in danger of being defeated by the first black to run a competitive Senate campaign in the South since Reconstruction.

Forced onto the defensive by Gantt's charges that his opposition to education, environmental and health legislation has pushed North Carolina close to the bottom in college board scores and infant mortality, the three-term Republican has mounted a counterattack attempting to turn gay and lesbian rights into an encompassing political metaphor that identifies Gantt with all the liabilities of modern liberalism.

More than any candidate for major office in recent memory, Helms is attempting to use the specter of a homosexual conspiracy to revive the beleaguered political right. "Why are homosexuals buying this election for Harvey Gantt?" asks a Helms newspaper ad. "Because Harvey Gantt will support their demands for mandatory gay rights!!" Asked today to explain what "mandatory gay rights" means, Helms replied: "These civil rights acts are compulsory, you either obey them or you don't. I think you understand that."

Today the Helms campaign sought to back up its assault by firing what sources in the campaign have claimed will prove to be a "silver bullet": a television commercial reviving charges that Gantt used his position as mayor of Charlotte and the fact that he is black to buy a share of a television station for $679 under a special federal program to encourage minority ownership and then "just weeks later sold the license to a white corporation for $450,000."

Susan Jetton, spokeswoman for Gantt, said, "There was nothing illegal or immoral or unethical about what was done. The FCC {Federal Communications Commission} said there was not enough evidence to warrant an investigation into it. He {Gantt} made a very smart business move."

No one is predicting the outcome of this race, and in many campaigns with black candidates preelection polls have overstated the black candidate's strength. Nonetheless, there are basic and often telltale signs suggesting a Democratic edge.

In his last reelection campaign in 1984, Helms had the advantage of President Ronald Reagan at the top of the GOP ticket and Walter F. Mondale as a foil to portray the Democratic Party as the bastion of tax-raising liberals. But this year the only national election themes have been the wavering and backtracking of the Bush administration on taxes. As a result, Helms has had difficulty portraying Gantt as a tax-and-spend liberal, particularly when an anti-incumbent mood appears to be building among voters.

Gantt, 47, has emerged as a powerful force to mobilize voters. In 1984, black and Democratic voter registration drives here were swamped by a massive surge in white fundamentalist Christian registration. This year, from April 15 to Oct. 15, black registration increased by 10.6 percent, twice the 5.3 percent rate of increase for whites. The number of newly registered Democrats, white and black, was almost twice the number of new Republicans -- 112,579 to 60,543.

On another key front -- money -- Gantt has outraised Helms since June 30, $4.8 million to $4.5 million, allowing him to more than match Helms in the battle of television commercials. Gantt has been flooded with cash from artists, novelists, civil libertarians, gay rights advocates, and the universe of liberal donors in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston and Washington.

In addition, old-guard and regular North Carolina Democrats have lined up solidly behind the Senate candidate. Many of them had been terrified that the liberal Gantt would be a general election disaster, crushing the Democratic ticket under a stampede of massive white defections. But now at county rallies and other events, local Democratic candidates welcome the opportunity to appear on the same stage with Gantt.

Gantt also has steadily grown as a campaigner, while Helms walks stiffly, wears a hearing aid and appears at times to be dependent on yellow sheets on which campaign themes and phrases are typed out.

Helms's political history, however, is replete with examples of come-from-behind victories in which he has built on his overwhelming backing among white, working- and lower-middle-class voters. One of the central elements of the Helms campaign is a radio commercial playing on country and western stations that attempts to weave homosexual and racial themes. It begins with the charge that Gantt is running a "secret campaign" in which he has "raised thousands of dollars in gay and lesbian bars in San Francisco, New York and Washington."

It then charges Gantt with a second "secret campaign running radio ads that play only on black radio stations. Why doesn't Harvey Gantt run his ad on all radio stations so everyone can hear it, instead of just on black radio stations? Doesn't Harvey Gantt want everyone to vote? Harvey Gantt promises more welfare spending and more quotas for minorities. Harvey Gantt -- too liberal for North Carolina."

Gantt has indirectly attempted to counter the anti-homosexual themes with an appeal to what he calls "North Carolina values."

"If I had been in the Senate today, I would not be there bashing gays and lesbians, holding up the efforts to do the necessary research to bring an end to this terrible epidemic called AIDS," he said. "I would have demonstrated the kind of compassion that represents North Carolina values."