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After Bowles’ Showing, Is Edwards Caught in A Numbers Game?

Talk that Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) might not seek re-election has already prompted mention of a repeat run by former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, who lost to now-Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R) in November.

Indeed, Democratic consultant Mac McCorkle was quoted in this very newspaper as saying that Bowles “ran a very good race in a very bad year” and “is by far the strongest [Democratic] candidate” in an open seat. [IMGCAP(1)]

I don’t really want to quibble with that assessment of Bowles or of his recent campaign. His effort was well-funded and aggressive, and there is no denying that Bowles had the Dole campaign worried as Election Day approached. (Although some close observers of the race would argue that as a debater and stump speaker, Bowles did not excel.)

But it’s important to put Bowles’ electoral performance in perspective, because I believe that it says something about the nature of Tar Heel politics.

Bowles’ showing — 44.95 percent of the vote — was the lowest of any North Carolina Democratic Senate candidate since the end of World War II. In fact, over the same period of time, only one Democratic candidate for governor, Robert Jordan in 1988, drew a smaller percentage of the total vote for that office (43.9 percent).

Bowles failed to equal Democratic Senate nominee Harvey Gantt’s showing in his 1990 challenge to then-Sen. Jesse Helms (47.4 percent) or in his 1996 rematch loss (45.9 percent). He did worse than Nick Galifianakis (46 percent), the Democratic nominee against Helms in 1972, the same year Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern was dragging down his party’s nominees for Congress.

Bowles apparently drew little more than the base Democratic vote in North Carolina last year against Dole, whose reputation as a moderately conservative Republican woman (and something of a political celebrity) made her a formidable candidate.

Yes, Dole started out with terrific personal ratings, great name recognition and a gender advantage. It’s unfair to Bowles to compare him to Helms’ opponents, since Helms was a polarizing figure and any Democratic nominee against him started with more advantages than Bowles did against Dole. And President Bush’s popularity boosted GOP turnout last year, also creating a problem for Bowles.

But when comparing Bowles to Gantt, one factor can’t be ignored: Gantt is black, and that carried with it its own disadvantages in North Carolina. Bowles didn’t have to contend with that factor.

Various surveys conducted between March 2001 and July 2002 by two GOP polling firms, Hill Research and Voter/Consumer Research, showed Dole getting between 60 percent and 65 percent of the vote against Bowles.

But post-Labor Day surveys conducted by pollsters of all-partisan stripes showed a different story, with Dole dropping into and often below the 50s. A number of polls showed her drawing only between 45 percent and 50 percent of the vote.

But it’s misleading to focus on Dole, since she started far ahead and began as the better-known commodity. Bowles’ numbers tell a more revealing story and raise questions about whether he ever had a chance of overtaking Dole.

While the former Clinton aide’s numbers grew as the race engaged, Bowles hit a ceiling at about 40 percent of the vote in public and private polling.

A mid-September North Carolina Credit Union survey conducted by Hickman-Brown Research, a Democratic firm, and Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican firm, found Bowles at 41 percent (to Dole’s 52 percent). A mid-October poll by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research for the Winston-Salem Journal had the race down to 10 points, but with Bowles at 40 percent. And an October Garin-Hart-Yang survey for Bowles had Dole’s lead shrinking to 6 points, but with the Democrat drawing 41 percent.

Private Republican polling showed the same thing. Dole’s numbers in the ballot test dropped, but Bowles couldn’t get above 42 percent.

If some Tar Heel voters started to have doubts about Dole, they didn’t automatically gravitate to Bowles.

Back before Ronald Reagan won the presidency, losing Republican Senate candidates in North Carolina regularly drew between 30 percent and 40 percent of the vote in the state’s U.S. Senate races. Since then, the two losers drew 47 percent (incumbent Lauch Faircloth) and 48.1 percent (appointed Sen. James Broyhill). Except in the rarest of cases, that appears to be the GOP floor.

In contrast, Democrats have lost five Senate contests since Reagan won the White House. Three of them (Gantt, Bowles and then-incumbent Sen. Terry Sanford) drew less than 47 percent of the vote.

All this suggests that Republicans begin with a slight edge in Senate races in the state, and a formidable GOP nominee should give Edwards or any other North Carolina Democratic nominee (including Bowles) a migraine.

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