Some thought the ferocious race for senator from North Carolina between Senator Jesse A. Helms and Governor James B. Hunt, Jr., was the second most important election in the nation. They saw it as a sort of showdown for the soul between the conservative Old South and the progressive forces of the New. Others viewed it as yet another stage in the erosion of the old one-party Democratic South. Still others saw it as simply a southern-fried back-alley brawl, featuring the latest electronic advertising techniques underwritten by the most costly funding in senatorial election history.
As the long and rowdy campaign unfolded in the shadow of the Reagan avalanche of 1984, it was a bit of all these. It was also a flamboyant, often nasty race between two skillful politicians sprung from much the same rural soil but espousing different political and social views.
Many of the senator's admirers considered him a courtly, grandfatherly figure, the "nicest man you ever saw." Others viewed him as an unbending right-wing warrior battling the "tax and spend" liberals or even as an avenging angel come to rescue sinners from their wicked ways. Still others identified him with Ronald Reagan "Morning in America" crusade for free enterprise, patriotism, and the "Opportunity Society." Not all Helms's supporters liked everything he favored--for example, stern anti-abortion laws or organized prayer in public schools--but they admired his gutsiness, even in pursuit of lost causes. He knew how to "send 'em a message" and they always knew where Jesse stood.
Then there were those who supported Helms because they liked Hunt less. They saw the governor as an overly political, wishy-washy opportunist mostly identified with tax increases and Yankee liberals on the Democratic ticket. They feared his links with "the other Jesse" (the Reverend Jesse Jackson) who made "we want it all" demands at home and anti-administration tirades abroad. They disliked Hunt' s tight-knit political organization, which had become entrenched and a bit careless after eight years in power.
The governor's admirers, a substantial majority of the populace as the race began, remembered his dedication to educational and economic uplift over a whole decade of Tar Heel history. They liked his crisp, pragmatic gubernatorial leadership, his conservatism on economic issues, his moderation on social issues, and his conviction that government is a partner not an