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Tar Heel Target

Burr Learns From Dole’s 2008 Defeat

As they look ahead to the 2010 Senate race in the Tar Heel State, Democrats and Republicans disagree on whether Sen. Richard Burr (R) is stronger than former Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R) was heading into the 2008 election.

But more important is whether Dole’s stunning 9-point defeat in a once-solidly conservative state that surged for President Barack Obama late in the 2008 cycle spells danger or merely offers important lessons for Burr.

Republicans are certain that Burr will be a much more aggressive campaigner than Dole ever was, and if that turns out to be the case, it means he will have learned lesson No. 1.

“If Democrats are counting on the 2008 election as an indication of their chances to win in North Carolina, they’re overlooking two factors — Barack Obama is not on the ticket, and Richard Burr, not Elizabeth Dole, is the candidate,” one Senate GOP strategist said Wednesday. “Dole’s defeat can be traced solely to her decision to stay in Washington for far too many weekends. Burr has not made that mistake, nor will he make that mistake.”

But Democrats are pointing to a slew of recent polls that show Burr with shaky job-approval numbers and narrow margins of victory in hypothetical matchups with Democrats as proof that he begins his race in a weaker position than Dole was in back in 2006, when she was still an iconic figure in the Tar Heel State.

According to a new survey released Wednesday by Public Policy Polling — a firm based in Raleigh, N.C., with a stable of Democratic clients — Burr had a 33 percent job-approval rating with 30 percent disapproving. By comparison, Dole’s approval rating as late as January 2008 was still in the mid-40s.

The PPP survey, which was in the field last weekend, also tested Burr in a hypothetical matchup against Rep. Heath Shuler, who is often mentioned in Democratic circles as a possible challenger to the first-term Senator.

Burr led Shuler 39 percent to 28 percent. But the survey indicated that Shuler is not well-known across the state and had a 51 percent approval rating in the mountainous areas of the state where he is well-known.

The PPP poll comes a little more than a week after a Research 2000 poll showed Burr in a tight race against two other possible Democratic contenders. That poll — which was commissioned by the liberal Daily Kos Web site — showed Burr holding a narrow lead, 45 percent to 43 percent, in a hypothetical matchup against state Attorney General Roy Cooper (D).

Burr also held a 46 percent to 40 percent lead in a hypothetical matchup against former state Treasurer Richard Moore, according to the Research 2000 poll.

One other potential Democratic candidate whose name has not been tested in public polling but who has been floated by some Democratic sources is seven-term Rep. Bob Etheridge.

Of the current Democratic field, Cooper is probably the frontrunner. The attorney general’s high name identification throughout the state stems from his statewide campaigns and multiple terms in the North Carolina Legislature. He also garnered national attention in recent years after he stepped in to handle rape allegations involving Duke University lacrosse players.

Cooper opted out of the congested 2008 gubernatorial race and the Senate race, but he was viewed as a strong recruit back then. His ties to the more Democratic eastern half of the state and background working on tobacco farms as a teenager have served him well as he has risen through the state ranks.

Hailing from a mountainous western district with a less than 5 percent black population, Shuler might have a tougher time amassing support from the state’s significant bloc of black voters, which was so crucial to Democratic gains in the state in 2008.

But Shuler’s socially conservative values have played well in his district, and he is seen as a candidate who can appeal to Republicans despite the “D” behind his name. Shuler also has a $1 million war chest and powerful allies.

On Monday, Shuler is holding a fundraiser with former President Bill Clinton in Raleigh. The $1,000-per-person event has raised eyebrows, but the Congressman has been quick to tell the media not to read too much into the fundraiser.

“The Congressman’s focus is on getting the American economy back on track,” Shuler spokesman Andrew Whalen said. “As of today, he’s running for re-election in the House of Representatives.”

As the Democratic field develops, it will be interesting to see whether Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) will step in to head off a high-profile primary battle. His predecessor, Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), was known for helping clear the field for top-tier recruits.

In 2008, now-Sen. Kay Hagan (D) did face a primary, but the DSCC made it fairly obvious that it was on her side in what turned out to be an easy victory for the then-state Senator.

“Without a doubt [Burr] is going to get a very serious challenge,” DSCC spokesman Matthew Miller said Wednesday. “Richard Burr starts this election cycle in a weaker position than Elizabeth Dole started hers … and that’s before the start of a campaign where his record will be called into question.”

But Burr’s campaign isn’t fretting over the early polling numbers that have been released. In fact, after a cycle where Democrats in North Carolina retained the governor’s seat, flipped a Senate seat and won the state in the presidential campaign, Burr’s campaign consultant Paul Shumaker said the early numbers prove the state is still very much up for grabs.

“The numbers are not an indication of any head-to-head race. It’s an indication of where the state is politically. This state is very much a swing state,” Shumaker said. “There are a lot of lessons to be learned out of 2008 … there was a lot of assumptions made and a lot of things taken for granted. Everybody has to realize that North Carolina is very much a competitive state. You cannot take anything for granted. … You have to run like you’re behind regardless of who you are.”

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