Washington John Edwards, North Carolina's freshman Democratic senator and peripatetic presidential candidate, has a problem. It is North Carolina.
His term expires next year. He must decide by the end of February 2004 whether to seek re-election to the Senate in addition to, or rather than, seeking his party's presidential nomination. This timing is not the problem. The Democratic nominee may well be known by Feb. 27 next year, or at any rate by then Edwards may know that he will not be the nominee.
The problem is that the Democratic-nominating electorate nationally is heavily salted with very liberal activists who are to the left of the party as a whole. The more Edwards courts this constituency, which strongly favors abortion, gay rights, gun control and racial preferences, the more apt he is to offend North Carolina Democrats, who are generally somewhat to the right of the national party's center. And he, like all recent North Carolina senators, operates with a narrow margin of electoral support.
North Carolina, like the nation lately, is evenly divided between the parties. Bill Clinton lost there by less than 1 percent in 1992 and by 5 percent four years later. The winning percentages in the state's eight U.S. Senate races since 1980 -- six of them won by Republicans -- have been 50, 51.7, 51.8, 52.5, 50.3, 53, 51, 54.
The nearest thing to a landslide -- in North Carolina terms, it was a landslide -- was the eighth, Elizabeth Dole's 54 percent victory last year. Dole achieved this despite hundreds of thousand of dollars in soft money spent by Edwards on broadcast ads designed to turn out the vote for the Democratic ticket.
The seventh of the eight elections in the series was won by Edwards in 1998 with just 51 percent against an extremely weak one-term incumbent, Lauch Faircloth. Faircloth had won the fifth election in that series with just 50.3 percent, defeating a one-term incumbent, Terry Sanford. And now Edwards has on his horizon Rep. Richard Burr.
Although Erskine Bowles, President Clinton's former chief of staff who lost to Dole last year, says he will run again if Edwards does not, Burr is planning on running against Edwards. Burr mentions a New Hampshire poll of 600 registered Democrats and undeclared voters who say they usually vote in Democratic primaries: John Kerry, 24 percent; Howard Dean, 19; Dick Gephardt, 15; Joe Lieberman 13, and Edwards tied at two with two people not running -- Joe Biden and retired Gen. Wesley Clark.
Burr says Bowles' name identification among North Carolinians is higher than Edwards', and professes himself "tickled to death" by an independent North Carolina poll that shows Edwards beating him 49-35. He reasons that he can do a lot about the 35 percent, because his name is still unknown to two-thirds of North Carolinians, but Edwards should worry about being below 50 percent against a largely unknown opponent. The same poll showed Edwards' "hard re-elect" number -- the percentage of those polled who say they would vote to re-elect -- at 37 percent.
Recently in Burr's hometown of Winston-Salem -- home of Wake Forest University, where he played football -- he raked in $700,000 at a fund-raising event attended by Karl Rove, President Bush's chief political strategist. The official line is that this early imprimatur from the White House was bestowed only after Burr demonstrated sufficient support from the state party's leaders. But such support was encouraged by the knowledge that this White House, which is active in trying to influence candidate selections, was watching closely.
Burr thinks Dole's victory proves that North Carolina's conservative bent is still strong, even after an influx of new residents that has seen the state -- now the 11th-largest, just behind Georgia -- grow 37 percent between 1980 and 2000. He also believes he will be helped by the public's focus on national security, given the large military presence in the state, including Fort Bragg, Camp Lejeune and the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base at Goldsboro.
North Carolinians, says Burr, are put off by Edwards' presidential aspirations because they want "stable figures for a long time," such as Sens. Sam Ervin, who served for 20 years until 1974, and Jesse Helms, who served 30 years until 2003. And citing the lukewarm reaction when Terry Sanford sought the 1972 and 1976 Democratic presidential nominations, Burr says North Carolinians care little about local presidential candidates.
If Sen. Fritz Hollings, the 81-year-old South Carolina Democrat, decides not to seek a seventh term next year, Republicans can plausibly hope for a two-seat pickup in the Carolinas. But this large step toward retaining control of the Senate will probably not include a North Carolina blowout.