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N.C. Democrats Play Catch-up

Sen. John Edwards’ (D-N.C.) decision not to seek re-election in 2004 left would-be Democratic successors scrambling to assemble campaigns after months of waiting in the wings.

Edwards informed party leaders Sunday night that he would forgo a run for a second Senate term in order to devote his full attention to the presidential race.

“This clearly answers one set of questions,” said state Democratic Party Chairwoman Barbara Allen. “We have some excellent people out there.”

Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles (D), who is considered the odds-on favorite for his party’s nomination, is currently huddling with advisers to decide the timing of his likely announcement.

He is also interviewing potential consultants and campaign staff. Geoff Garin, who handled the survey research in his 2002 campaign is the likely pollster, according to Democratic sources; a media consultant has not yet been chosen. One knowledgeable source noted that Bowles essentially has a “campaign in waiting” from his last run that includes both state and national fundraisers. Bowles did not return a call for comment Monday.

Former state Rep. Dan Blue is also seen as a likely Democratic candidate. He finished second to Bowles in the 2002 Senate primary.

In an interview Monday, Blue said he had an “interest” in the 2004 Senate race and was currently waiting to see how the field plays out.

As for a potential rematch with Bowles, Blue said confidently: “If it were a heads up race in the primary, I’d whip him.”

Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, who placed third in that race, has also expressed an interest.

A spokeswoman for 2nd district Rep. Bob Etheridge (D), once mentioned as a potential contender, said Monday the Congressman would not run for the open seat.

Allen said Bowles “would be the best” of the candidates mentioned; Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Jon Corzine (N.J.) was more measured, saying only that “we are blessed with a strong field of potential candidates.”

Rep. Richard Burr (R), who has represented a Winston-Salem-based district since 1994, is the only GOPer in the race.

Edwards’ retirement comes after months of increasing pressure applied by state and national Democrats fretting that the ongoing indecision could cost Democrats the seat.

He is set to formally announce his presidential candidacy Sept. 16 in his hometown of Robbins, N.C.

Several of his opponents for the party nomination dismissed the potential impact that Edwards’ decision to leave the Senate would have on the presidential contest.

“This has more to do with placating folks at home as opposed to his presidential aspirations,” said Kristian Denny, a spokeswoman for Sen. Bob Graham (Fla.).

Earlier this year, Graham “greenlighted” would-be Senate successors to begin putting together the finances and organization necessary to run if he decided against a re-election bid.

“We are not keeping people from doing what they need to do,” explained Denny, who dismissed a suggestion that Edwards’ retirement puts pressure on Graham to make a definitive announcement.

“Our situation has always been different,” she said.

At least one potential Florida Senate candidate, former Rep. Bill McCollum (R), took issue with that conclusion.

“He owes it to the people of Florida to reveal his true intentions,” McCollum said. “John Edwards did that for the people of North Carolina. It is time for Bob Graham to do the same for Floridians.”

An adviser to the presidential campaign of Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), who is retiring from the House, said that Edwards taking a pass on the Senate “may help him with fundraising” but predicted it would have little other practical effect.

“We have been pleasantly surprised by how little Edwards has cut into our base,” the adviser said.

Several Democratic sources had held out hope that Edwards would eventually return to the Senate, viewing him as the strongest potential candidate for Democrats despite his ongoing presidential bid.

“Whenever you have an incumbent with the appeal Edwards has shown, something is lost,” said one North Carolina Democratic strategist.

But, as Edwards devoted more and more of his time to campaigning in key early primary states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, his approval ratings in North Carolina fell, making a re-election bid — should he have chosen that option — an iffy proposition.

“Where Edwards was heading not just in terms of energy and focus but in terms of ideology was going to make [incumbency] a vanishing asset,” noted one state Democrat.

To many Democrats, Bowles is significantly less troubled than Edwards by political baggage and will present a formidable challenge to Burr.

In his first run for elected office in 2002, Bowles took 45 percent of the vote against now-Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) in the open-seat race to replace retiring Sen. Jesse Helms (R).

He spent better than $7 million of his own money in that contest, although several Democratic sources suggested Monday that Bowles is hoping to avoid making such a large personal donation in this campaign.

Bowles’ national connections — developed during his stint as President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff — and his strong roots in the North Carolina banking community are likely to aid his fundraising.

Given Burr’s extremely active fundraising and the prospect for a competitive primary, however, any Democrat seems certain to begin the general election in a large financial hole.

The five-term Congressman has emerged as the strongest fundraiser of any Senate challenger in the nation, raising more than $3.6 million through June and banking $3.5 million.

National Republican Senatorial Committee Communications Director Dan Allen described the seat as “an expensive and daunting proposition for Democrats.”

Most neutral observers believe it would be difficult for either Blue or Marshall to raise the kind of money necessary to compete with the Burr fundraising machine.

Blue, the first black Speaker of the North Carolina state House, took 29 percent of the 2002 primary vote, second to Bowles’ 43 percent. Blue raised just more than $750,000 for that race.

After losing his party’s nomination, Blue waited more than a month before endorsing Bowles, a fact that caused considerable consternation among party leaders.

One state Democrat expressed skepticism about a second Blue bid.

“Dan would have to show a willingness and a knack for starting the kind of small business a campaign is and he has not shown that,” the source said.

Democrats are clearly hoping to avoid a contentious primary fight in hopes of conserving resources for the general election. Sources said, however, that the DSCC would not endorse Bowles or any other candidate if a primary does develop.

Lauren W. Whittington contributed to this report.