NORTH CAROLINA -- Richard Burr, the GOP Representative from North Carolina's 5th District running for Senate, is trying to appeal to the "Jessie-Crats." They are the conservative Democrats who live in the tobacco-heavy eastern portion of the state that Jessie Helms relied on so heavily in his victories. So, on Saturday, Burr is barnstorming the eastern side of North Carolina.
He is not barnstorming it alone. Burr has brought a whole slew of state GOP candidates with him, including Jim Snyder, who is running for Lt. Governor, Ed Meyer, for State Treasurer, Joe Knight, for Attorney General, Steve Troxler, for Commissioner of Agriculture, and about a half dozen candidates for judicial offices.
As a candidate, Burr is polished. He is versatile with his stump speech, sticking to a center but switching some parts based on the crowd he is with. The crowds respond warmly to his remarks, and afterwards he is eager to shake hands and make small talk.
The first stop is at the Hampton Inn in Rocky Mount at 8:30 in the morning on Saturday.
Burr elicits a big laugh when he says, "We did a fundraiser, and I said to the group, 'Don't pay any attention to the polls, it's way too early.' I'm here today to say, 'Listen to the polls!'" It isn't hard to see why. Burr's opponent, former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, led by ten points about six weeks ago. At the time, some in the conservative press were criticizing Burr for waiting too long to go on the air. Now, however, that seems like the difference between running campaigns and reporting on them. The most recent poll has Burr up by two.
Much of his surge is likely due ads he is running that link Bowles to Clinton, criticizing them for cutting defense spending. The ads appear to have hit their mark. Bowles has responded with an ad that declares, "Bill Clinton is not running for Senate."
The room at the Hampton is about three-quarters full, which seems a bit light to me. I ask Ed Meyer about this, and he claims it is actually a big improvement. "Four years ago, you wouldn't have had half this many. This represents a lot of enthusiasm." He mentions that the enthusiasm isn't just for Burr. "At the state fair, they were lined up eight deep at the Bush-Cheney booth," he says. "By 7 p.m. the booth had run out of Bush-Cheney stuff."
AS WE BARREL DOWN the highway toward the next event in Wilson, one of signs on the Burr RV flies off and is trampled by some cars. At a pit stop a few minutes later I joke with the New Republic's Jason Zengerle, who is also covering the campaign, that "if the next couple of events go poorly, I guess we have the metaphor for our articles." Just then, one of the Burr staffers pulls up in his car, and takes out what I initially thought was a new sign. Turns out that he had pulled over and retrieved the one that had fallen off. (Now there's dedication to your candidate!) Minus a few crinkles, it looks pretty good.
It's just as well, because the metaphor wouldn't have worked anyway. Rather, the remaining events go off much like the initial one. The crowds are not huge but good-sized and enthusiastic. And there is usually a reason why the turnout is actually exceeding expectations. At a rally at a Dodge dealership in Jacksonville, the crowd seems small until I'm told that it was a youth rally organized by a 13-year-old.
The best event all day occurs at the Overman Farms in Goldsboro. It is standing room only in the tobacco barn, where the event takes place. Yet there is a reason: It's the only event that former Senator Jesse Helms attends. Although his speech is plodding, the crowd is attentive to every word. It is unfortunate for Burr that Helms's poor health prevents him from traveling more, for the crowd is very warm toward Helms, and Helms finds ways to let it rub off on Burr.
"Even though the election is only a few days away, Richard has already been working hard. This past week Richard and Elizabeth Dole passed a tobacco buyout through the Congress," Helms says "As we say in my neighborhood, he done good." The crowd laughs heartily, and Burr has a big grin on his face.
INDEED, THE PHRASE OF THE day is "tobacco buyout," a plan that is supposed to end federal tobacco price-support system by buying out tobacco farmers to the tune of $10 billion. The reaction among tobacco farmers seems net positive, as many feared that the price-support system was facing an uncertain future. Thus, Burr is taking credit for it at every stop. He talks it up with local reporters, to the exclusion of other issues.
One such issue that Burr neglects to mention is gay marriage. That's curious because there are billboards in this area of North Carolina touting candidates' opposition to it. Two candidates for statehouse, Harry Brown and George Cleveland, oppose it in their radio ads. So why isn't Burr mentioning it in the area of "Jessie-Crats"? When asked about this, Burr replies, "I'm talking about the things that are the most important to the people of North Carolina, and that's the War on Terror and the economy and jobs."
Still, it seems odd that Burr isn't talking about gay marriage among what is surely a lot of "values voters." Perhaps he doesn't want to get bogged down in controversy. Or perhaps he doesn't want his message about the tobacco buyout to get muddled. Whatever the reason, it's hard to question Burr's strategy given his recent surge in the polls.
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