GUM POND, ALA. -- In the one-room Gum Pond Primitive Baptist Church that is set among the small farms of northern Alabama, Gov. Guy Hunt (R) preached this week to his small congregation about the comfort of knowing a loving Lord.
The compassionate words of his sermon contrasted sharply with his latest campaign message airing on television across the state the same day. The commercial features a prim young woman with long brown hair who leans into the camera and darkly warns viewers about Hunt's Democratic opponent, Paul Hubbert, head of the Alabama Education Association.
"Paul Hubbert strongly supported the national teacher's union," the woman says ominously. "This union endorses letting homosexual teachers stay in the classroom."
The ad goes on to talk about the National Education Association's opposition to both drug testing of school bus drivers and making English the official language of the United States.
These are the two faces of Guy Hunt's reelection campaign. In one, he is the country farmboy and lay Baptist preacher, playing to his rural roots as he meanders through the Alabama countryside, cutting ribbons and crowning homecoming queens. But in the other he is the hardened political pro, engaged in a big-budget, negative assault on his opponent that has used racial themes in a way that Alabama hasn't seen since the early gubernatorial campaigns of George C. Wallace in the 1960s.
Before the homosexuals-in-the-classroom ad began airing last Friday, two of Hunt's commercials used grainy photographs of a youthful Jesse L. Jackson, sporting an Afro-style haircut, and of Hubbert sitting in a car with Joe Reed, a prominent black education lobbyist here.
Hunt said the ads were designed to show Hubbert's associations with liberals, noting that the Jackson ad also mentioned Walter F. Mondale and featured a sketch of that bastion of liberalism -- Massachusetts. Of the Reed ad, Hunt said: "We're talking about power, not the color of a person's skin. We're talking about the power of special-interest groups."
Alabama Democrats see other motives behind the commercials.
"The ads were aimed at those fears that are always just beneath the surface," said Birmingham Mayor Richard Arrington, who is black. "Maybe because the president set the tone in the '88 campaign with the Willie Horton ad, we're seeing more of it now."
The voters for whom these messages are aimed will decide the election. With the polls showing the race too close to call, analysts say the outcome will turn on the rural white vote, which tends to be conservative on cultural and social issues, but somewhat more liberal on economic issues. These Alabamians voted for Ronald Reagan, but are not strongly committed to either the Republican Party or Hunt.
"If the Hunt campaign doesn't inject some emotion or an edge of anger into the campaign, it won't be enough to motivate these people to get out to the polls," said Bill Barnard, a history professor at the University of Alabama.
In part, Hunt's political troubles stem from the peculiar circumstances that propelled him into office in 1986. Hunt is Alabama's accidental governor. Even the Republicans expected him to lose four years ago, when the GOP focused on trying to reelect then-Sen. Jeremiah Denton. Hunt was put up as a candidate they could afford to sacrifice.
But the Democrats in 1986 were even more preoccupied than the Republicans. The party was torn apart in a bitter internal feud and angry Democratic voters responded by swarming to Hunt's camp. Denton was defeated for reelection, but suddenly Alabama had its first Republican governor since Reconstruction.
Hunt's rough features endeared him to the state's small-town folk, but in the silk-stocking Republican power circles he was not personally influential. Nor was he a power in Montgomery, the state capital, where much of his agenda died at the hands of the Democratic-controlled legislature.
Hubbert, on the other hand, has never held elected office, but is regarded as one of the most savvy and powerful insiders in Montgomery. He is also viewed with some uneasiness as too liberal to win over those critical rural white voters.
Hubbert has attacked Hunt as a caretaker governor who has missed opportunities to move Alabama -- which still ranks at or near the bottom of the 50 states in education and health care -- forward along with some of its more progressive sister states in the South.
Hubbert complains that the Hunt campaign has refused to seriously address the issues of education reform and taxation. The Democrat is a polished and quick-tongued speaker and Hunt's handlers are taking no chances on the campaign trail. Hunt refused to debate Hubbert, avoids most interviews and sticks with the ceremonial appearances that made him so popular during his term.
Last week, after Hunt's latest media attack on homosexual teachers, Hubbert denounced Hunt and said it was a sure sign of a desperate campaign.
"We haven't accused him of being immoral," Hubbert said. "I think economic development would have been a good issue for debate."
Hubbert demanded an apology and for the commercial to be pulled off the air, then quickly put on a response ad featuring his minister.
But Hunt's handlers rejected the demand while the governor headed back to northern Alabama for another down-home event: breakfast with country singer Tammy Wynette.