As I write it is mid-July, and the Senate race between Jesse Helms and Harvet Gantt isn’t nearly as hot as the weather here in North Carolina, where it was 99 degrees in the shade this afternoon. To judge from the phone calls I’ve alrearly had from inquiring Yankee reporters, though, Helms-Gantt is shaping up as the big morality play of the fall. By the time you read this, assuming both candidates have stayed out of jail, our little old state ought to be the focus of right much national attention. That’s not surprising: from a major metro point of view our election is great melodrama, as good as anything professional wrestling has to offer:

In this corner, the defending champion, the Darth Vader of American politics, friend of Third World dictators, homophobic foe of artistic freedom, Senator No himself: Jesse Helms of Monroe, North Carolina.


His challenger, from Charlotte, North Carolina, representing the New South and the forces of light: the first black student at Clemson University, the first black mayor of Chariotte, now possibly the first—

Well, who knows? The political handicappers around here don’t give Gantt much chance, and neither do I, for reasons I’ll get to. But it’s early yet, and Gantt has already confounded the oddsmakers by handily defeating his opponent in the Democratic primary runoff, a race that was supposed to be much closer. (Remember when David Dinkins and Doug Wilder did less well than the polls had predicted and we heard all sorts of unflattering speculation about why white people who say they’ll vote for a black man, don’t? Well, apparently lots of people who said they wouldn’t vote for Gantt, did. Explain that, Daniel Schorr.)

Gantt “has done a great deal, probably more than he himself realizes, to establish respectful communication across sensitive barriers in human relations.” He “has demonstrated that he knows a thing or two about human nature, and, more important to our way of thinking, that he is sincere.” Those observations were offered by—well, by Jesse Helms, commenting for a Raleigh television station in 1963 on Mr. Gantt’s application to Clemson University. Helms was comparing Gantt favorably to James Meredith, calling the two men “a study in contrasts.” (I guess you could say they still are: Meredith works for Helms now.) The relentlessly Democratic Raleigh News and Observer turned up that morsel, probably intending to embarrass Helms by quoting him as having said good things about his opponent. The quotations, however, could as easily suggest that Jesse Helms has never been as simple or predictable as his image in some circles suggests.

Anyway, the young Clemson architecture student has grown up to be a candidate much in the mold of ‘Virginia’s Douglas Wilder—that is, before Wilder won and his social life picked up. Like candidate Wilder, described by one observer as “the least threatening black man since the Mills Brothers,” Gantt is personable and articulate. Like Wilder—and unlike, oh, say Jesse Jackson—Gantt has held public office, elected mayor of North Carolina’s largest city by a biracial coalition, (He was defeated for reelection when the fickle electorate voted in Charlotte’s first female mayor.)

Gantt also resembles Wilder in that he has kept his distance from the Rainbow Coalition. He said once that “We don’t need Jesse Jackson’s help,” by which he probably didn’t mean “We need Jesse Jackson’s help like a case of ringworm,” but that’s true enough. When Jackson’s old buddy Louis Farrakhan came to Charlotte to preach whatever the Islamic equivalent of a revival is, he invited Mr. Gantt to attend, but the candidate arranged to be out of town. He had to be in California for a meeting of the National Organization for Women, which is probably a slight improvement, electorally speaking.

The conventional wisdom has it that a Democrat can win statewide in North Carolina these days only if he gets 40 percent of the white vote. Terry Sanford got 46 percent, and he sits in the Senate now. Jim Hunt got 38 percent, and he now sits in Raleigh, allegedly practicing law. If Gantt turns out large numbers of blacks who don’t ordinarily vote, all bets are off, but otherwise I think Gantt is a nonstarter.

Not because of his race, though. Sure, NPR will find some white voters to say that they won’t vote for Gantt because he’s black. But it’s a mistake to assume that these folks would vote for a white Democrat with Gantt’s convictions and credentials. Just as any Democrat can count on better than 90 percent of the black vote right now, any Democrat with Gantt’s baggage—leave his race aside—is going to have problems with a great many white voters.

There is, to start with, what a Raleigh reporter once called “the Mecklenberg thing.” Mecklenberg County (that is, Charlotte) simply isn’t very popular with folks in the rest of the state, largely because Charlotteans do little to disguise their conviction that the rest of us are a bunch of yokels. Running for statewide office from Charlotte is like being from Atlanta and running in Georgia—no, worse: Atlanta has a lot more voters than Charlotte. Having been mayor of the place may hurt Gantt at least as much as it helps him.

Gantt is also going to have trouble disguising the fact that he is what passes around here for a liberal. So far he hasn’t even tried. The other day, for example, he volunteered that he’s against capital punishment—thereby disagreeing with a solid majority of the voters, black and white. Republican and Democrat. When even Dianne Feinstein has adopted the basketball wisdom that execution is the key to winning, it isn’t clear why Harvey Gantt felt obliged to have any position on that issue. After all, he won’t be able to pardon anybody.

Gantt has assembled a campaign staff with impressive credentials. His pollsters, for example, used to work for Pat Caddell. He has hired a fundraiser and field organizer who used to work for John Glenn, and who has served as “Director of Women for the State of Ohio” (whatever that is). His press secretary is a woman who most recently did the same job for Willie Brown, speaker of the California State Assembly. And his “media consultants” are the New York City firm that worked for Jim Hunt when he lost the Big One to Helms in 1984; one of the two “account executives” (that’s what they call them) handling Gantt is Mandy Grunwald, the daughter of Time magazine’s Harry Grunwald.

Now maybe you’re thinking that sounds like a slick, professional operation; obviously someone in Charlotte thinks so. But it’s more likely that you see the problem, which is that this is a carpetbag enterprise. It probably won’t work—not because Tar Heels dislike outsiders, but because New York account executives usually don’t know diddly-squat about the South. Worse, they don’t know that they don’t know. Let me show you how that ignorance works.

I play poker with a crowd that includes a couple of conservative Democrats—sort of the Northern Spotted Owls of American political life—and one night a while back these guys got to talking about how to beat Jesse Helms. They agreed that you can’t win by trying to portray him the way the Yankee press likes to do it, as evil incarnate. For starters, that concedes that he is an important and powerful figure: the Prince of Darkness may be the kind of stud you want on your side up there in D.C. Besides, too many voters know that picture isn’t accurate. They may not agree with Senator Helms, but they know he’s a gentleman, and honest. As George Bush says in some television ads, you always know where Jesse stands (which is more than can be said for “Lips” himself these days). Esse quam videri, the state motto says: “To be and not to seem.” That’s Jesse. He’s just a little more outspoken than your brother Butch, who thinks pretty much the way he does. You saying Butch is evil?

No, the way to beat Helms, my friends agreed, is to make him a figure of fun. Once that happens to someone, he’s through. Ask Jerry Ford. Ask Dan Quayle.

Certainly that’s true in the South. Consider Jim Folsom: so long as Alabamians were laughing with him, they kept him in office; when they started laughing at him, his vote percentage dropped to the single digits. The same thing almost happened to Ross Barnett. Somewhere one of Barnett’s advisers offers an engagingly candid account of the time Barnett, in midcampaign, walked into an airplane propeller. Before the candidate reached the hospital, his staff had hastily confected a cover story in which the propeller had mysteriously started up and attacked him. I mean, people already suspected the man was dumb.

When my friends decided to “Lester Maddox” Jesse, as they put it, they really did a number on him. Most of what they came up with had to do with Jesse getting the big head up there in Washington, and losing touch with his roots. “Textiles going to hell, tobacco going to hell, and he’s up yonder having lunch with goddamn Central Americans”—that sort of thing. The nastiest line, probably too rough for a 30-second concerned-voters-speak television spot but just right for a whispering campaign: “You know, Jesse’s been in Washington too long. He keeps talking about homosexuals. Now, you know that ain’t right. Something wrong with a man that talks about homosexuals all the time.” (When he heard that, the Reverend Billy Wirtz—a boogie-woogie piano player I’ve mentioned in these letters before—instantly dashed off a campaign song, a Glen Campbell parody called “Genitals on His Mind.” I won’t quote from it in this family magazine, but I have encouraged Billy to apply for Arts Endowment support.)

There is just enough truth in the line my friends were developing that it might sting. The fact is that Jesse does get excited about some foreign-policy and cultural issues that few folks back home care about much. Those issues may go down with his national constituency, and it’s not that many people here disagree with him; they just don’t get as worked up as he does. The homosexual conspiracy is a case in point. Like International Communism, it’s a rather theoretical concern in these parts. Sure, we turned out two thousand people in Chapel Hill last June 30 for a statewide Lesbian and Gay Pride March, but, heck, three thousand people turned out the day before for the opening of Interstate 40 to Wilmington.

Anyway, the senator’s admirers don’t have to worry. My smart-mouth poker buddies aren’t running the Gantt campaign. That’s being done by Mandy Grunwald and her friends, who will probably go head-to-head with Helms on no-win issues like capital punishment and Arts Endowment funding. So I conclude, anyway, from what happened when one of my anti-Helms friends, finding himself in Charlotte, presumed on his credentials as a longtime Democratic campaign worker to stop by Gantt headquarters and offer the visiting Yankees some free advice.

He outlined the Lester Maddox strategy to a young woman on the candidate’s staff. He even sang a few bars of the Reverend Billy’s song. But the young woman was not amused.

“We certainly intend to portray him as weak and ineffectual,” she sniffed, “but Jesse Helms is not laughable.” My friend realized at that moment that he was wasting his time. He says he should have figured that out earlier, when he walked into Gantt headquarters and was invited not to smoke.