Helms and Hunt: The North Carolina Senate Race, 1984

By William D. Snider | Go to book overview

27. The Reagan Tide

In a speech at Wake Forest University in early October Jim Hunt compared his campaign to unseat Jesse Helms with some of the basketball games he'd played in as a youth. "When they start to rough you up, you had to give it back," he said. "For 18 months . . . my opponent and his right-wing network have pounded into people's heads a series of distortions and outright lies about my record."

From the start the governor's managers had recognized that challenger Hunt had to take risks. One of them was playing rough. Exposing all the nooks and crannies of Helms's record over twelve years would require candid discussion of the issues, and would sometimes risk slipping over into personal muckraking or character assassination. One of Hunt's major strengths had been his "Mr. Clean" image, his refusal to engage in gutter politics. Yet the governor saw danger in letting his formidable adversary picture him as weak or vacillating.

From the beginning Hunt had decided not to turn the other cheek when Helms hit at him. But controlling his combativeness became more difficult as Senator Helms's candidacy surged with Reagan's popularity. Hunt's provocative "dead bodies" television ad in the spring, linking Helms with Salvadoran "death squads," had generated concern among some of the governor's supporters. Hunt considered the senator's support for Latin American dictators a legitimate and vital issue, but Helms called it a personal attack and used it to counter Hunt's contention that only the senator engaged in name-calling.

"I don't think Jim Hunt's organization can stay with Jesse Helms on negative advertising," one Hunt aide told a reporter in late summer. "I don't think Jim Hunt can out-Jesse Jesse." This represented the views of some Hunt advisers who were convinced that such ads could produce a deadly fallout. The aide went on to explain: "There is this notion that you're not a real man in this state unless you cut up your opponent. The voters . . . are a lot more educated and sophisticated than Jesse Helms gives them credit for, and Jim Hunt too."

Yet Hunt ultimately took a combative stance in the television debates. It was designed to expose Helms's record on such touchy subjects as Social Security, support for corporate tax breaks, slashes in veterans' benefits, and neglect of education. The governor mentioned these subjects repeatedly in

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