RALEIGH, N.C., OCT. 31 -- Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), struggling to turn back the bid of Democrat Harvey Gantt to become the South's first post-Reconstruction black senator, today bluntly and directly injected the subject of race into the bitter Senate contest here in a television commercial attacking Gantt on the issue of racial job quotas.

At the same time, the North Carolina Republican Party began a so-called "ballot security" program that the state Democratic Party chairman charged was aimed at the "blatant intimidation" of voters.

Gantt immediately denounced the television attack as "divisive" and accused Helms of attempting "to divide people along the lines of race." But sources in the Gantt campaign acknowledged that preliminary poll findings suggest that the Democratic former mayor of Charlotte has been damaged by the latest Helms television assault and by earlier commercials accusing him of being an advocate of "mandatory gay rights."

The Helms job quotas commercial shows a white man's hands crumpling what clearly is a job rejection letter. "You needed that job and you were the best qualified," the announcer says. "But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. Is that really fair?"

"Harvey Gantt says it is," the message continues. "Gantt supports Ted Kennedy's racial quota law that makes the color of your skin more important than your qualifications."

The commercial is only the bluntest weapon in a Helms arsenal that includes accusations not only that Gantt supports quotas -- a charge he denies -- but allegations that the challenger personally profited from a special racial preference program in the award of television licenses.

"How did Harvey Gantt become a millionaire?" asks the announcer in another Helms commercial that began today. "He used his position as mayor and his minority status to get himself and his friends a free TV station license from the government. Only weeks later, they sold out -- to a white-owned corporation for $3.5 million. The black community felt betrayed, but the deal made the mayor a millionaire. Harvey Gantt made government work for Harvey Gantt."

Helms's charges that Gantt used an FCC racial preference program to reap hundreds of thousands of dollars in quick profits is a direct assault on one of Gantt's strongest appeals to voters, white and black: "I was raised to believe that nobody hands you anything in this world, you have to work for it," declares Gantt, an architect by training, in one of his commercials. "His achievements have come the old-fashioned way, with hard work and determination," an announcer adds.

Mel Watt, Gantt's campaign manager, said in response to the Helms quota ads: "Harvey Gantt is a long-term opponent of quotas, he has said that over and over again. It is a lie and a smear, and {reflects} their willingness to say anything and do anything to win." Watt contended that race was not a factor in the award of the television license to a group of investors that included Gantt.

The Helms barrage, in addition to cutting into Gantt's support, appears to have at least briefly shifted the campaign agenda from the issues of environment and education, which had clearly been working to Gantt's advantage.

Gantt sought to defuse the Helms accusations, which are expected to escalate between now and Tuesday's voting. A new Gantt commercial contends: "Jesse Helms is running another outrageous smear campaign. This time he has gone too far. . . . Look at what 18 years of Jesse Helms has cost us. SAT scores, 49th in the nation, a third of our kids dropping out of school, 900 toxic waste sites."

Helms, however, sought to turn Gantt's attacks on his record in education into an issue heavily tinged with race. Appearing personally in a new ad, Helms declares: "For 20 years the Washington liberals have controlled education. Twenty years of mistakes: forced busing, neighborhood schools wrecked, plummeting SAT scores and now comes Ted Kennedy's quota bill -- hiring teachers based on racial quotas and not qualifications."

While Helms mounted his final-week television assault, the North Carolina GOP sent out postcards to newly registered voters and voters whose addresses appeared to conflict with other lists obtained by the GOP. The postcards, targeted to precincts with high Democratic turnout, warn that "it is a federal crime, punishable by up to five years in jail, to knowingly give false information about your name, residence or period of residence to an election official."

Jack Hawke, head of the state GOP, acknowledged that "historically and traditionally the black precincts are the most Democratic" and therefore were at the top of the list to get the cards. But Hawke argued that he could "find nothing with this that has racial overtones."

North Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Lawrence Davis said the GOP "ballot security" program "is clearly not an attempt to educate but rather to intimidate voters."

Faced with accusations that earlier ballot security programs were designed to prevent blacks from voting, the Republican National Committee promised in a series of consent agreements in federal court in 1982 and 1986 to "refrain from undertaking any ballot security activities in polling places or election districts where the racial or ethnic composition of such districts is a factor."

It is not clear whether the consent agreements apply to the state party, which has received large sums from the RNC.