-- In the final face-to-face confrontation of their contentious Senate race, Elizabeth Dole and Erskine B. Bowles established one irrefutable fact: They can walk and chew issues at the same time.

Dole, a former Cabinet member and Red Cross president, negotiated the right to wear a lavaliere microphone for the debate Saturday night at East Carolina University and quickly reprised her famous Oprah-style walkabout at the 1996 Republican National Convention, leaving the podium to address audience members at close range.

Her opponent, former Clinton White House chief of staff Bowles, followed her example and moved in so close that front-row guests were in danger of an inadvertent blow from his expansive two-armed chopping gestures.

On their alternating trips to the front of the stage, the rivals in the narrowing race to succeed retiring Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) summarized, in generally measured tones, their differences on trade, Social Security, domestic policy and corporate connections that have been dealt with more harshly in their expensive ad campaigns.

Neutral observers agreed that despite battling the flu, Bowles held his own with Dole, the more polished public speaker. But they said Bowles may not have done much to dislodge her from the favorite's status she has clung to since the start of the race. The debate was televised across the state an hour before the World Series.

Dole's lead has shrunk from 20 points or more, prior to Bowles's winning the long-delayed Democratic primary on Sept. 10, to single digits in both parties' private polls last week.

But President Bush, who enjoys high popularity here, is coming to Bowles's home city of Charlotte on Thursday -- his fifth visit to the state -- to boost Dole's chances. Bowles, who has not invited former president Bill Clinton to campaign for him, will counter with former Texas governor Ann Richards, whose loss to Bush in 1994 launched his career.

Last year the White House handpicked Dole for this race and urged her to reestablish her residence in North Carolina, where she had not lived full-time since graduating from Duke University 44 years ago. But national GOP officials worried whether her campaign skills had improved since her faltering bid for the 2000 presidential nomination.

Now, those same officials credit her with running a smart, disciplined campaign. She solidified her home-state ties by visiting all 100 counties. With Helms's endorsement, Dole brushed aside minor right-wing primary opposition and cultivated conservative "Jessecrats" by stiffening her opposition to gun control and abortion and by promising to seek a seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Her husband, former senator Robert J. Dole of Kansas, has vouched for her in veterans' halls across the rural counties, and Helms will appear at Dole rallies this week.

That has freed her to take a more moderate tack in the general election campaign, where she has promoted health care and prescription drug benefits and appeared before the NAACP convention, a venue Helms would have scorned.

Bowles was handicapped in his challenge by a redistricting controversy that postponed the Democratic primary from May to September and by his own early awkwardness in his first political race. But with $3 million of his own fortune, he has mounted an aggressive TV campaign, challenging Dole's support for liberal trade policies and for Social Security changes that would give younger workers the option of putting some of their taxes into private retirement accounts.

Dole has not backed off on either front. She supports "fast-track" trading authority for the president and accuses Bowles of flip-flopping on the issue, having supported that authority when Clinton was in office.

And unlike Republicans in other states, who have rejected what Democrats call "privatization" of Social Security, Dole went to a senior citizens' center on Friday to insist that private accounts and "a bigger nest egg" can be created without "taking one penny from any senior's benefits or raising anyone's Social Security taxes" -- a promise that Bowles ridiculed in his ads and in the debate.

On the other hand, when Bowles said he was "surprised" to learn that Dole, as a Cabinet member and presidential aspirant, had opposed the Family and Medical Leave Act, she quickly recanted and said it was working well and should be expanded.

The rivals also have sparred on their corporate ties. Early on, Democrats faulted Dole for appearing at a Houston fundraiser hosted by Enron Corp. CEO Kenneth L. Lay. More recently, Republicans have publicized Bowles's role as a defendant in a lawsuit filed against his former investment banking firm by the state of Connecticut, which lost pension money in Enron stock.

When the Dole campaign advertised that the textile firm run by Bowles's wife, Crandall, had laid off workers in the United States while adding employees in Mexico and China, Bowles erupted angrily, and he complained to Dole during the debate about "attacks on my wife." She insisted the practices of "your family business" were legitimate campaign fodder.

The issue is a sensitive one here, because unemployment has risen markedly, especially in the textile, furniture and high-tech industries.

Despite the economic difficulty, the Democratic Party is on the defensive here, thanks to a long and bitter legislative session that left Gov. Mike Easley (D) unpopular.

In the end, some local analysts say, the Senate race -- which Republicans need to win to have a reasonable chance of reclaiming their majority -- may rest largely on the size of the African American vote. Bowles made some inroads among blacks in the primary, where his chief opponent was Dan Blue, the African American former speaker of the state House of Representatives. Blue has since endorsed Bowles, but polls show a significant undecided vote among blacks, which could presage a weak turnout.

Bowles used the debate to publicize again and again that Dole had supported President George H.W. Bush's veto of the civil rights extension bill in 1990 -- a stand she said, in a faint echo of Helms, was justified because it was "a quota bill."