GOP Risks Losing Grip On North Carolina

The problems for the Republican Party may be best indicated in North Carolina, where the presidential race is suddenly close. Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole is trailing in her re-election bid, and there's at least one GOP House seat in jeopardy of switching parties.

On a recent afternoon less than a week before Election Day, people are lined up to vote early at the Independence Regional Library in eastern Charlotte, N.C. They are reading books and chatting with their neighbors as they wait.

Among them is schoolteacher Larry Kissell, the Democratic candidate for the state's 8th Congressional District. He is running for this seat for the second time — he lost his 2006 bid by 329 votes — and is doing some last-minute politicking.

Already in this district, almost as many people have cast their ballots in early voting as did in total two years ago; most of them are Democrats.

"The thing that has hurt our district the most is bad free-trade deals," Kissell says. "My opponent was the deciding vote on fast-track. He was the deciding vote for CAFTA [the Central America Free Trade Agreement]."

Over in Oakboro, N.C., Republican incumbent Robin Hayes is talking to a couple of dozen workers outside the Tuscarora Yarn Mill. It is one of a shrinking number of textile plants in the state. Hayes says his deciding vote on CAFTA turned out pretty well.

"I'm looking to help you — to do things that are going to help you," he says.

Hayes got some unwanted attention earlier this month when — warming up the crowd at a rally for John McCain — he said liberals "hate real Americans that work and accomplish and achieve and believe in God."

His staff at first denied Hayes' comments, but after tapes of the event emerged, Hayes apologized.

"It came out totally wrong. It's the opposite of how I feel. I was telling somebody today, I got some friends who are incredibly liberal who are dear friends," he said.

Whether Hayes' comments will affect the outcome of his race remains to be seen. But they illustrate the tough year Republicans are having in a state that has been reliably red on the federal level.

"The Republicans — they can't catch a break this year, that's all there is to it," says Ted Arrington, who teaches political science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Blame It On The Ground Game?

Arrington faults McCain and Dole for failing to organize good ground campaigns.

"If there's not evidence of activity on the ground, there's plenty of it in the air," he says. "TV ads have become increasingly negative. Dole has been airing this spot accusing her Democratic challenger, state Sen. Kay Hagan, of taking money from a group called Godless Americans."

The ad intones: "A leader of the Godless Americans PAC recently held a fundraiser in her honor: Godless Americans and Kay Hagan. She hid from cameras — took godless money. What did Hagan promise in return? There is no god." The last line is read in a woman's voice that someone watching the ad might think is Hagan's; it isn't.

Hagan has responded with a spot of her own in which she says: "I'm Kay Hagan, and Elizabeth Dole's attacks on my Christian faith are offensive. She even faked my voice to make you believe I don't believe in God. Well, I believe in God. I taught Sunday school. My faith guides my life, and Sen. Dole knows it."

The fact that the presidential race, a Senate seat and a congressional seat are all too close to call with just a few days to go illustrates the trouble Republicans find themselves in this year in North Carolina.

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