Helms and Hunt: The North Carolina Senate Race, 1984

By William D. Snider | Go to book overview

26. A Severe Identity Crisis

"Okay, here's a little pop quiz to see if you've really done your homework in this busy political season," said a squib in the North Carolina Independent, a liberal biweekly Tar Heel newspaper. "This U.S. congressional candidate from North Carolina is for major increases in defense spending including development and deployment of the MX missile, the B-I and stealth bombers and the Trident submarine and against the nuclear freeze. He advocates voluntary school prayer, balancing the federal budget and law and order. And by his own admission, a list of his financial backers reads like a Who's Who of business and industry in North Carolina. Give up? Here's a hint: He is running for the U.S. Senate, his initials are J. H. and . . . he's a Democrat."

The squib appeared in April, long before the American electorate had begun to coalesce in landslide proportions behind President Reagan. By September the issues separating Jim Hunt and Ronald Reagan had dwindled to a precious few. "Wary Democrats shy from Mondale while GOP candidates cling to Reagan," observed the Wall Street Journal. Hunt continued to support the Mondale-Ferraro ticket, but he didn't make it a campaign theme.

As Labor Day passed and the Democratic campaign showed no signs of catching on, Hunt backed spending cuts and tight tax laws more zealously than ever. He opposed Mondale's tax-increase program, but deplored the federal deficit. "We can care for our people without raising taxes on the hard-working middle class," he said. The governor strengthened his attacks on Helms's tax breaks for big corporations and the wealthy, for failing to support education and the elderly. But nowhere, except on the deficit and in an occasional reference to Reagan's foreign policy, did he buck the President.

Meanwhile Senator Helms had readjusted his strategy following his tepid performance in the first television debate. As the Mondale campaign floundered, he added new elements to his theme of "Where Do You Stand, Jim?" He answered the question by repeatedly labeling the governor a " Mondale liberal."

This issue became part of the senator's offensive in the second television debate on September 9 in Wilmington, in which Helms stopped being nice and forgot his grandchildren. Hunt had lost none of his assertiveness, but the senator had shifted his tactics and become his familiar pugnacious self.

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