Republican Elizabeth Dole holds the North Carolina Senate seat that belonged to Jesse Helms for 30 years. But in her first bid for re-election, Dole is threatened by state Sen. Kay Hagan — and some polls are showing Hagan taking the lead.
Democrats in North Carolina and in the U.S. Senate had a tough time finding a candidate who would face Dole because state officeholders, including Hagan, didn't like their chances.
"I have a great family life and I had a very powerful position in the state Legislature and I did turn it down," Hagan said. "However, that very next day I knew it was the wrong decision."
But timing is everything, and Hagan now has a better than even chance of being elected to the Senate.
Hagan portrays Dole as being out of touch with North Carolina and closer to Kansas, where her husband, former Sen. Robert Dole, lives.
"So here she is now representing North Carolina in the U.S. Senate and she really hasn't lived here in over 40 years," says Hagan. "So I always talk about the fact that I live in North Carolina — and my husband can vote for me."
A Disciplined Message
Hagan's campaign is working because she has a disciplined message, says pollster Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling in Raleigh. The message is to tie Dole to President Bush and his economic policies, and to attack her for being absent.
"They've argued that Elizabeth Dole has not been visible enough, that she hasn't been around, that she hasn't been a ubiquitous presence in the state," Jensen says.
The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee has poured money into the state, paying for a series of unusually good-natured attack ads featuring two older gents sitting in rocking chairs in front of a country store. They talk about how Liddy Dole is "just not a go-getter."
Hagan was on message when she gave a speech at a Nash County Democratic dinner last week. While Helms was known as Senator No, Hagan said, "Liddy Dole is Senator Nowhere in North Carolina."
The Winston-Salem Journal used Senate travel records to show Dole has spent very little time in North Carolina — less than two weeks in one of the years she's been senator. But she has picked up the pace. Vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin appeared last week in Greenville, and Dole was there, too.
In a speech there, Dole praised other Republicans running this year, including Sen. John McCain. And she talked about her own career in the Senate, serving on committees for armed services, small business and aging, "the ones that are the best for North Carolina."
Negative Ads On Both Sides
Dole also took some time to bash her opponent for the negative ads produced by the National Democratic Senate Campaign Committee and its chairman, Charles Schumer of New York.
"He is sending in almost $10 million against me in negative, ugly, mean-spirited, untruthful ads," she said.
The Dole campaign is also using negative ads, attacking Hagan for oil and gas investments, state budget debates, taxes — and for using negative ads.
While the rocking chair ads got the attention of most North Carolina voters, the Dole ads have not worked as well, according to pollster Jensen.
"The Republican bombardment began in September, but what's interesting is every single time a new set of ads starts running, Hagan's lead keeps on increasing," Jensen says.
"I think it's because they're trying to hit Hagan with too many things at once, there's not enough cohesion in the message. I don't think any of it's really connecting with the voters."
Hagan has a lead in the Senate race right now and may benefit if there's a large turnout of black voters for Sen. Barack Obama.
But Dole is the incumbent. She decided this week to put some of her personal money in her campaign. She feels, she says, that she needs to "put some skin in the game."