Scourge of the world sits tight

Rupert Cornwell on the bid to unseat America's crusty elder statesman, Jesse Helms
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The Independent Online
Watch Harvey Gantt talk to a group of working mums at the Kidworks childcare centre here, and it's hard to imagine that the hopes of the world are on his shoulders. Courtesy and charm personified, the former mayor of Charlotte is expounding on child tax-credits and kindergarten programmes, making his pitch to be elected Democratic Senator for North Carolina this November.

Mr Gantt happens to be black. But for foreign-policymakers across the globe, the real question is another: can Mr Gantt this year succeed where he failed in 1990, and defeat Jesse Helms?

Of the Senate contests this year, none will be watched beyond America's borders more closely than this one. Here, it will be scrutinised as a pointer to racial and social attitudes in the old South. Abroad, only one thing matters: whether the US can be rid of the cantankerous chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, scourge of the UN, single-handed delayer of key ambassadorial appointments, and - not to put too fine a point on it - an unreconstructed xenophobe.

On paper, this should be a tough year for a diehard conservative like Mr Helms. At the top of the Republican ticket, Bob Dole is faring so poorly that President Bill Clinton could carry North Carolina. Old scapegoats are gone: the UN and aid-hungry countries in the Third World are pale targets compared with the defunct Soviet Union. His health has been poor - many were convinced that at the age of almost 75 and after 24 years in the Senate, Mr Helms would retire - and he has an opponent who surely won't make the same mistake twice.

"Harvey Gantt could have won in 1990, if he'd run a better campaign at the end," said Seth Effron, editor of the state political newsletter the Insider. Then, of course, he was derailed by a now-legendary advertisement showing a white hand crumpling a job-rejection slip, backing up Mr Helms's charge that he supported race-based job quotas and, only slightly more subtly, reminding voters that Mr Gantt was black. "He made the fatal error over negative ads: you either respond in 24 hours or you're dead." Mr Gantt did not, and Mr Helms in extremis turned a deficit into a 53-per- cent victory.

This time he is blending the new with the tried-and-tested. One advertisement depicts him with young girls on his knee, cooing about their cuddly, loveable old grandfather, Jesse.

Another plays the race card: Mr Gantt, it notes, is a liberal who supports gay rights and opposes the death penalty: "Does Harvey Gantt fit North Carolina ?" Translation: does North Carolina want a black senator?

There are advertisements, too, telling of the federal money Mr Helms has brought to the state and of his support for the besieged tobacco industry, which accounts for nearly one in 10 of its jobs. "He's trying to come over as a genial old duffer who does things for people," said David Olson, politics professor at North Carolina University. "Meet him and he can be Southern grace personified. But the flip side of Southern grace is Southern viciousness." Washington's foreign-policymakers know as well as North Carolina Democrats just how cussed and vicious old Jesse can be when the chips are down.

And in his elections, they usually are. Despite his seniority and celebrity, Mr Helms has never won more than 55 per cent of the vote. State political lore holds that 45 per cent love him, and 45 per cent loathe him. Thus, contests invariably hinge on the remaining 10 per cent, mostly white suburban voters whom he has always managed to persuade to view him less unfavourably than his opponents.

This time a new ingredient is in the mix, 700,000 new voters registered since 1990, almost two-thirds of whom are independent. Both candidates must woo the centre; so much so that Mr Gantt is doing a fair impersonation of that rediscovered centrist, Bill Clinton. Caring, compassionate and a supporter of women's rights, but also an advocate of targeted tax-cuts, and "old values" like family, discipline, and tougher punishment for violent criminals.

In 1996 Mr Gantt will surely give as good as he gets, albeit at long range. Mr Helms is refusing debates More important, however, is that North Carolina is more conservative than it was six years ago, a fact which can only favour Mr Helms. Right now, the old curmudgeon is leading, according to the Mason-Dixon poll, by 10 points.

Paradoxically, his cause may even be helped by North Carolina's hugely popular Democratic Governor, Jim Hunt, who is cruising to re-election this autumn. "There's a strain of voters here which likes Hunt as Governor," Mr Effron said, "but in the Senate they want someone who'll raise hell, be it over foreigners, the UN, pornography, or gay rights."

Which may be the salvation of Jesse Helms in 1996, but is less happy news for the rest of the planet.