As the 1984 election year dawned, the national press sensed either an epochal battle or a mud fight brewing in North Carolina. They sent some of their best reporters to find out. In January the Wall Street Journal led off a page-one dispatch from Greenville: "The evening offered barbecued chicken, corn sticks, iced tea and Jesse Helms. Catfish Hunter couldn't make it, but for the North Carolina senator the evening was still a sentimental journey back to the Moose lodge where he began his first Senate campaign on a rainy night 12 years ago."
The Journal called the Carolina campaign a showdown between Old South and New South. But North Carolinians knew better. Helms, the small-town police chief's son, had few of the trappings of patrician Old South culture. His brassy, often pious conservatism lauded the nostalgia of the good old days; but it mainly offered a mixture of anti-Communist, anti-government rhetoric with occasional evangelistic religious overtones. Helms, however, never hesitated to use government power in his own behalf where it suited his purposes (for example, tobacco subsidies and organized prayer in schools).
Hunt, on the other hand, dealt cautiously with the conventional liberal symbols of the New South, even though his roots were in FDR's New Deal. From his earliest days Hunt had protected his right flank--a lesson he learned in the Sanford and Preyer gubernatorial campaigns of the 1960s. National reporters wanted to call Hunt "liberal"--since New South versus Old South made the image simple and dramatic. Yet Hunt always leaned toward the middle, so much so that he often straddled the fence. His moderation, which seemed liberal to some Tar Heels, was occasionally called "metooism" by newspapers like the Raleigh News and Observer.
From the start Senator Helms's strategy had been to push Hunt into far left field. His attacks identified Hunt with "limousine liberals," black activists, labor bosses, and gay liberationists. But the governor constantly dodged these associations. Sometimes this made him appear waffling and fuzzy. On occasion Helms described Hunt as the windshield wiper candidate: "first one way and then the other"--but Hunt's closest associates knew he had always been centrist, which made him both appealing and vulnerable.
Helms's expensive television campaign ten months before the election