Erskine B. Bowles knows the rap that lingers from his nine-point loss to Elizabeth Dole (R) in the 2002 Senate race. He was too awkward, aloof and patrician, his critics said, especially in contrast to the polished and telegenic Dole.
So as he runs for the Senate again this year, the wealthy Charlotte investment banker and former Clinton White House chief of staff is presenting a more relaxed and comfortable image -- even if he seems to force it now and then. On his way to a recent speech here on homeland security, he took a ride on the back of a friend's bright red Harley-Davidson, then mentioned it to his audience.
Although Bowles will never be labeled the state's most charismatic politician -- his oversize glasses and high forehead still delight political cartoonists -- even Republicans begrudgingly say he is a smoother campaigner and crisper speaker. That worries his GOP opponent, Rep. Richard M. Burr of Winston-Salem. Analysts in both parties say that this Senate race is among the nation's closest, and that even a tiny edge could prove crucial.
Burr and Bowles, two seasoned politicians who can deftly discuss complex policies, nonetheless are pursuing rather simple campaign strategies. Burr keeps stoking the notion that Bowles is unlikable while hitching his own fate to President Bush, who easily carried North Carolina in 2000 and is favored to win here again this fall even with Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) on the Democratic ticket. When Bush visited Raleigh on Wednesday, Burr flew with him from Washington on Air Force One.
Bowles, meanwhile, is trying to steer the debate away from national issues and to present himself as a centrist, common-sense problem solver who largely eschews partisan labels. That strategy mirrors those of former four-term governor Jim Hunt (D) and Democratic Gov. Mike Easley, who is coasting toward reelection this fall.
The Senate race -- sandwiched on the ballot between likely Republican winner Bush and likely Democratic winner Easley -- may turn on this question: Will North Carolina voters ultimately see it as a referendum on Bush and the GOP's national agenda? Or will they treat it more like the statewide races in which Hunt and Easley have prospered with moderate platforms that do not overemphasize tax cuts or slash government services such as education and roads?
"It's in Burr's interest to make the race as national as possible, and in Bowles's interest to shape himself as much as possible as a candidate . . . who can make the government work," said Ferrell Guillory, director of the program in southern politics, media and public life at the University of North Carolina.
Accordingly, Bowles's campaign platform is a mix of locally important issues, such as pushing a federal buyout for tobacco farmers, and mainstream Democratic priorities such as creating jobs, spending more on homeland security, enhancing veterans' benefits and providing more Americans with health insurance.
"What I've tried to do is take these significant issues, whether it was jobs or homeland security, and really think about what as a senator can you do to try to attract 50 other votes to get something done," Bowles said in an interview. "I don't think anything I've come forward with are Republican or Democratic ideas. I think they're just good ideas."
Bowles often alludes to his experience as head of the Small Business Administration and as White House chief of staff under Bill Clinton, though he rarely mentions the former president's name. "Where my skills were when I was there last time," he said, "was in bringing people together and trying to find the common-sense middle ground."
Burr, a five-term House member recruited by the White House to run for the Senate, says Bowles's strategy will not work. "This will be an event-driven election," he said, and the key events are most likely to occur in Iraq or elsewhere in the war on terrorism.
Such events will underscore Bush's role in fighting terrorism, Burr and his supporters say. That will make North Carolina voters more inclined to vote for not only the president but also the congressional candidates most likely to support him.
"In the Senate race, major national issues will predominate -- the war in Iraq, the war on terrorism," state Rep. David Miner (R), a Burr ally from Cary, said in an interview in his legislative office. "Burr will not let Bowles escape his Washington experience," which includes the Clinton administration's failure to rein in terrorists such as Osama bin Laden, he said.
If all else fails, Burr suggested during a recent campaign swing, voters may decide they don't like Bowles now any more than they did two years ago. Asked the top reason he will win, Burr didn't cite jobs or homeland security or even his favorite subject, health care.
"I don't think people like Erskine Bowles, at least not 50 percent of the voters," he said. "And people have a difficult time voting for someone they don't think they'd feel comfortable having in their living room."
A recent poll showed Bowles leading Burr by several percentage points. But the more telling polls, political insiders say, will come a few weeks after Burr's biographical TV ads, which began July 5, have saturated the state. He can buy lots of air time. As of June 30, Burr's campaign had $6.6 million in the bank to Bowles's $3.7 million. Bowles has raised more money than Burr in recent months, however.
Some Democrats say Burr's strategy will backfire, because setbacks in Iraq have damaged Bush's popularity as much here as in other states.
"I think George Bush has lost the trust of the American people and the people of North Carolina," said Gary Pearce, a veteran Democratic consultant from Raleigh who is advising the Bowles campaign. In the Senate race, he said, "people are going to want an independent voice and not a rubber stamp."
The Bowles camp also hopes for a boost from John F. Kerry's choice of Edwards -- whose retirement created the open Senate seat here -- as his running mate. Many North Carolinians have taken pride in Edwards's surprisingly strong national campaign skills, and his presence on the Massachusetts senator's ticket could put Bowles over the top, Democratic leaders say.
Burr supporters offer a different scenario. "The governor's race is quiet; the Senate race is quiet," said Peter D. Hans, a former Burr aide now living in Raleigh. "You put Edwards on the ticket, and everyone wakes up." In a state that Bush carried by 13 points four years ago, he said, that could help Bush loyalist Burr more than Democrat Bowles.