After Jesse, the New Moderates

Jesse A. Helms, the man who defined North Carolina politics for three decades, will hang up his hat at the end of the year. An ailing Helms, 80, says he wants to spend more time with his family. But had he run for reelection, the state's changing demographics would have made it an uphill battle.

Helms's departure is one of the most telling signs of North Carolina's metamorphosis. In their bid to replace him, both parties are fielding a new breed of candidate: moderates long on Washington experience. Compared with Helms, they're more in tune with the state's increasingly diverse population and high-tech service economy than with its tobacco-growing, textile-manufacturing past. On the GOP side is former Presidential candidate Elizabeth Dole. For the Democrats: Erskine Bowles, chief of staff for President Bill Clinton from 1996 to 1998 and a flag-bearer for the new economy. Both are expected to win their party nominations in the Sept. 10 primary.

Dole and Bowles are targeting a different group of voters than the rural whites who repeatedly returned Helms to the Senate. "You've had a lot of Jessecrats who have aged out or passed on," says GOP strategist Marc Rotterman.

Indeed, the boomers of Research Triangle Park and other tech meccas have become a political force. The ranks of independent voters have tripled since 1982, to 16% of the electorate. Winning the political middle--without turning off too many other voters--is key to victory.

That's why Dole is irritating conservatives by not putting opposition to gun control and abortion at the top of her agenda. Instead, she's appealing to seniors with promises of prescription-drug coverage, reaching out to suburbanites on education, and pitching job creation to rural workers. Bowles's message is almost identical. Both candidates are also avoiding Helms's race-baiting tactics. To woo the growing Hispanic population, they're reaching out to Latino business groups and have campaign Web sites in Spanish.

But populist centrism is not an easy road to walk. Bowles has been furiously backpedaling from his success in getting Congress to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement, which siphoned jobs from North Carolina's textile industry. He's now telling voters that the agreement hasn't lived up to its promise because it hasn't been enforced. He also likes to note that his wife, Crandall Close Bowles, CEO of textile manufacturer Springs Industries Inc., knows firsthand of the region's economic suffering. Dole, meanwhile, emphasizes such middle-class concerns as health care and job creation but still reaches out to conservative church groups and rural whites. Early polls have Bowles losing to Dole, who has had the benefit of an easier primary race.

Whoever wins, the North Carolina race is a harbinger for rural America. Other heartland states, such as Kansas and Nebraska, are undergoing similar demographic and political transitions. So it probably won't be long before their political parties, too, are forced to change.

By Lorraine Woellert in Washington

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