Gov. Jim Hunt Struggles Against the Right's Might and Money in a Bid to Unseat Sen. Jesse Helms

updated 05/14/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/14/1984 01:00AM

The evening political rally at the National Guard Armory in Clinton, N.C. comes alive with all the boisterous fervor of a religious revival meeting. Clapping his hands to the stirring strains of Dixie, Jesse Helms smiles down from the podium at his all-white, all-conservative audience, some of them clutching red, white and blue paperback copies of When Free Men Shall Stand, Helms' strident political testament. Then, with preacherlike fire, North Carolina's Republican Senator urgently sets forth the gospel according to Jesse. He warns of the Communist threat in El Salvador, grimly envisioning Central American nations falling like dominoes and millions of "feet people" streaming into the United States and onto the welfare rolls. He decries the "annual murder of one million and a half unborn babies" in abortion clinics and lambastes "secular humanists" who have denied children the right to pray in public schools. Finally, denouncing the Soviets as "barbarous, heinous murderers," he brings the crowd to tears with the heartrending story of his airport encounter with two little girls who died hours later in the Soviets' destruction of Korean Air Lines Flight #007 last September.

The vintage performance by the messiah of the American Right is strong evidence that, as the 62-year-old Helms faces one of the toughest campaigns of his political career, his fighting instincts have never been sharper. In his bid for reelection to a third term, Helms is being challenged by North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., 46, a popular Democrat riding a formidable record of achievement from his two gubernatorial terms. The battle has been billed as an "Old South" vs. "New South" confrontation, pitting the champion of antebellum folkways and traditional values against the staunch proponent of civil rights and social programs. The acrimonious struggle between the state's two leading officeholders has divided political loyalties in North Carolina. With both men assured of victory in their party primaries (May 8), they began sparring more than a year ago for what is expected to be the most expensive Senate race in history. Before the November election is decided their campaign expenditures will probably approach $20 million.

At stake is far more than a U.S. Senate seat. A Helms victory would solidify his leadership of the Republican Party's ultraconservative wing and strengthen his influence in the choice of a GOP leader to succeed President Reagan. A Hunt win would propel the new Senator into national prominence as a new voice of the South. A defeat for either man—in a state whose politicians generally have a shelf life of two years—could send the loser spiraling quickly into obscurity.

"The problem for most people in the state is that they would like to keep the two of them," says Harrison Hickman, a Washington political consultant and North Carolina native. "Helms has a charismatic hold on half the people of North Carolina even though they disagree with him on the issues. Hunt has the solid image of a can-do governor. The people have to make a choice and that's going to be hard."

Hunt has by far the stronger state organization, with teams of workers in most of the 100 counties, where registration runs three-to-one in favor of the Democrats. He also is guaranteed the crucial black vote—now making up 20 percent of registered voters—who are strongly antipathetic to Helms. "We're running a people's campaign," says Hunt. "We believe our people can beat their money anytime."

The Senator, a longtime opponent of civil-rights legislation (along with 21 other senators he voted against making Martin Luther King's birthday a national holiday), has hired a black press secretary but has written off the black vote, once saying he wouldn't "sell my soul" to keep his seat.

Helms, however, has the money—his efficient national right-wing organization, the Congressional Club, is expected to raise nearly $14 million for its co-founder, compared to Hunt's $5 million from traditional Democratic sources in and out of state—and he also has the momentum. Though Hunt struck first by attacking Helms' Senate record, Helms responded this spring with a powerful counterattack, a series of 10-second TV spots and a direct-mail campaign that paint the Governor as a flip-flopping liberal and "a special interest candidate" backed by "left-wingers, homosexuals and labor unions." "Where do you stand, Jim?" asks the taunting tag line. The strategy also shrewdly exploited Hunt's reputation for being a packaged consensus-seeking politician. A running joke in the state has it that you will always find three things in the middle of the road—the yellow line, dead possums and Jim Hunt. The ads brought the Senator from 20 points behind in the polls to a virtual dead heat. The Governor was kept so busy answering the charges that he was diverted from the issues. "The ads are so outrageous, so scurrilous that I can't believe people will be taken in by them," says the exasperated Hunt. "They have twisted our statements and taken them out of context," complains Stephanie Bass, Hunt's communications director. "It's going to be a mean, dirty campaign."

The two candidates are as different in their styles as they are in ideologies. The bespectacled Helms, with his soft Carolina accent, comes across as the affable, courtly Southern gentleman. He defends his conservatism with both humor and evangelical zeal. "They say I'm hard-hearted, want the poor to starve and throw widows out in the snow at 7 every morning," he tells audiences. "It's not so. I'm just going to continue to stand up for my principles."

Hunt, a crisp figure in sharply pressed suits and lacquered hair, is the more precise speaker and a man of cool intelligence. Both men are religious and have cast their eyes eagerly upon the state's 2.5 million churchgoing Christians. "If God-fearing Americans don't rise up and make their voices heard," thunders Helms, "I'm not sure we deserve to survive." Meeker in tone, Hunt also invokes Divine support: "I follow the example of Jesus Christ as closely as I can," he avers.

Race and religion are sensitively intertwined in the campaign. In two registration drives in the state, the Rev. Jesse Jackson has helped bring about a 15 percent increase in black voter registration. Hunt was not involved in the drives but is almost certain to receive the support of the new voters. The Baptist Helms has responded by enlisting the support of Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell in a registration drive for white conservatives, which has been less successful so far than Jackson's efforts. Helms speaks constantly of the battle between Christian values and secularism. Hunt, a Presbyterian, appeals to the Christian sense of civic duty. Stumping at dinners, churches and rallies throughout the state, he talks of "preventing child abuse, ensuring good schools and making sure people have jobs," as well as economic growth, tax fairness and environmental protection. "I want to be known as the education senator," he says. "I'm for equal opportunity and the working class."

Hunt has the credentials to back up his ambitious stump talk. During his eight years in the state house, he has succeeded in attracting $13 billion in new business investment, created 207,000 new jobs and raised educational standards through a series of reforms.

The son of a soil conservationist and a teacher, Hunt began his political career in farm organizations in his hometown of Rock Ridge. By the age of 18, he had been elected president of the North Carolina Junior Grange as well as state president of Future Farmers of America. "I used to practice my speeches on my tractor while I plowed my daddy's field," he says.

He graduated from the University of North Carolina Law School in 1964, then worked as an agricultural economist for the Ford Foundation in Nepal until 1966. He was elected lieutenant governor in 1972, the only North Carolinian Democrat to win statewide office in the Nixon landslide that carried Helms into the Senate. He won the governorship in 1976 and again in 1980.

For 25 years Hunt has been married to the former Carolyn Leonard, an Iowa farmer's daughter, and the couple has four children, ranging in ages from 16 to 24. Carolyn Hunt has mixed feelings about her husband's passionate political commitment (she prefers farm life), but she remains a tireless campaigner, often joining him at rallies. The sudden surge by Helms has left Hunt unfazed by the prospect of losing. "People think I have been in office so long I don't have any options," he says. "It's not true. I can teach, I can go into law. I can do something else. I'll dive right in."

North Carolina is intimately familiar with Jesse Helms' remarkable rise from small-town police chief's boy to America's Great Right Hope. After graduating from Monroe, N.C. high school in 1938, the young go-getter found a job on the sports desk of the Raleigh News & Observer where he met his wife, Dot, a social-page reporter. They have been married 41 years and have three children. Helms got his first taste of politics as a worker for Democratic Senate candidate Willis Smith, an "Old South" politician, and rose to prominence as a right-wing commentator on local TV and radio.

Helms changed his registration from Democrat to Republican in 1970, winning election to the Senate in 1972 and again in 1978. Since Reagan's victory in 1980 and the emergence of a Senate Republican majority, he has enjoyed consequential power on Capitol Hill as Chairman of the Agricultural Committee as well as leader of the New Right.

Like Hunt, Helms is philosophical about the prospect of losing this time. "If the suggestion is made by the Lord and the people that Jesse has to go back to North Carolina," he muses, "you look carefully on the screen that night and you won't see one tear. I'll get to watch my grandchildren grow up. If the Lord lets me live, I will have been here 12 years—and that ain't no bad thing."

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