Charlotte—With Republicans holding a slim 51-seat majority in the Senate, every seat counts, especially so for voters who will go to the polls to vote for John Kerry assuming he will be constrained by a wholly GOP Congress. Maybe, maybe not. A handful of toss-up races like the one in North Carolina will tell the tale.
Unfortunately for Tar Heel voters, their choices for senator are no more inspiring than the names at the top of the ticket. Perhaps even the null-set performance of John "Gone" Edwards may one day be fondly recalled considering the candidates who now vie to follow him.
Both Republican Richard Burr and Democrat Erskine Bowles have charged down the last few weeks of the race, each eager to prove that he is the most protectionist and pork-securing candidate a frightened and xenophobic voter could possibly desire. In fact, Bill Clinton's prominent place in the campaign is the most substantive, least cringe-inducing issue in the race.
"They each want the Smoot-Hawley vote," is how one chagrined Carolina free-trader describes the devolution of the Burr-Bowles showdown.
Bowles' Professor Squeaky McPreppy exterior is not a natural campaign asset. Many doubted he could easily rotate from deputy chief of staff in the Clinton White House straight to elective office. Sure enough, Bowles never found his footing during his 2002 senate loss to Elizabeth Dole for the seat Jesse Helms left behind. In 2004, it was supposed to be different as Democratic party leaders cleared the field of challengers and a more assured Bowles was slated to talk up his stint as head of the Small Business Administration as a problem-solving centrist who could help kick-start the state's hard-hit manufacturing sector.
Burr's nondescript 10-year House career conforms perfectly to his nondescript physical presence, which suggests the pleasant, meaty persistence of the appliance salesman Burr was before coming to Congress in the GOP tide of 1994. From his secure Winston-Salem-based district, Burr passed over several other opportunities to try for a state-wide office over the years, opting to make the run for what many assumed would be Edwards' open seat even before Edwards' presidential bid flamed out.
However, the Bush administration's perceived indifference to North Carolina's economic woes, paradoxically encouraged by spectacles like Sen. Dole howling for the White House to do something about China's "unfair" exchange rates, tilted the campaign playing field toward the Democrats. Bowles began the campaign with a built-in double-digit lead and held it throughout the summer.
But in recent weeks Burr has unleashed a flood of TV ads reminding voters of Bowles' links to Clinton, featuring a slo-mo montage of the heavy-lidded former president looming over the bookish Bowles like Jabba the Hutt. Bowles shares Clinton's affinity for "hiding the truth," you see. Moreover, Burr's ads explicitly play the protectionist card, closing with the ominous mantra, "Bowles: Wrong on NAFTA, Wrong on China." The race closed up fast.
Bowles responded to the attack on his own neo-protectionist trade position by attacking Burr for also supporting NAFTA and as well as trade pacts with Vietnam, which just might rate a rung or two below dealing with the hated Chinese in many textile towns.
Bowles has also hit Burr over House votes against Medicare provisions that had the effect of taking money away from nursing homes, with one Bowles TV spot implying Burr voted that way only because nursing home operators told him to. Burr's comeback—and he's the Republican, remember—is that the ultimate problem is with the 1997 Balanced Budget Act that Bowles helped guide through Congress. Without that troublesome bit of legislation, Burr says, there'd be almost $1 billion more to spend.
In recent days, Burr and Bowles have slipped even further into vote-grubbing by taking turns trying to grab credit for scoring $4 billion of the $10 billion federal tobacco-grower buyout for North Carolina. Burr lobbied long and hard on both the House and Senate side for the bill and Bowles flew to DC to meet with Democrats upset the deal did not hand a prostrate tobacco industry over to the Food and Drug Administration.
Neither candidate seems particularly concerned by the fact that the buyout money will go to "quota holders"—tobacco-speak for made men—who may not have grown tobacco, or even owned farms, for years. Indeed, the massive federal payment is couched by supporters as a sort of reparation payment to rural areas long wounded by America's move to a more urbanized, faster-paced way of life.
Bowles goes on to claim that Burr's affinity for Winston-Salem based cigarette-makers lopped $3 billion off the potential windfall. A Burr spokesman cuts right to the chase—"North Carolina farmers know a check is coming, and it's coming because of Richard Burr's hard work."
There's your voting issue, friends: federal handout or even bigger federal handout. Knock yourselves out, folks. You can always throw your vote away on the Libertarian and keep a clean conscience.