A former White House Chief of Staff, a long-time state legislator and the first woman to win a statewide executive office in North Carolina are among the leading contenders for the Democratic nomination in this year's U.S. Senate race.
According to recent poll data, former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles has an edge on both N.C. Rep. Dan Blue, D-Wake, and N.C. Secretary of State Elaine Marshall in terms of name recognition. But all three are nearly tied in the number of people who hold favorable opinions of them.
A poll conducted in early March by The Institute of Politics and Public Affairs at Elon University -- one of the few polls conducted about the race thus far -- found that 48 percent of those surveyed recognized Bowles' name, while Blue had a 28.8 percent recognition rate and 24.4 percent recognized Marshall.
The survey found the race was even closer in terms of the number of people who held favorable opinions of the candidates. Bowles again narrowly led in this category with 14 percent of those surveyed responding that they had a favorable opinion of him. Marshall came in second with 10 percent, followed by Blue with 7.7 percent.
But all three Democrats will have more time to make a name for themselves than originally anticipated due to the postponement of the N.C. primaries, originally scheduled for May 7. The primaries have been put on hold while the N.C. Supreme Court decides the legality of state district lines drawn by the legislature last fall.
UNC political science Professor Thad Beyle said it is too early to tell what effect the postponement of the primary election will have on the race. Beyle said the delay likely will be most costly for Bowles, who is the only candidate to use television ads so far in the election season.
"That can get expensive," he said. "A lot of people have said Dan Blue and Elaine Marshall will come out better because they're doing most of their work on the ground like going out and shaking hands and meeting people."
So far in the 2002 election cycle, Bowles has raised more that $3.1 million for his campaign -- $2.6 million more than any other Democratic candidate.
Ferrel Guillory, director of UNC's Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life, attributed Bowles' fund-raising ability and front-runner status partially to the encouragement and support he received from top party leaders.
He added that Bowles' job as chief of staff for former President Bill Clinton could also help him gain support from Democrats.
"Bowles has increasingly mentioned and publicized images of he and Clinton together," Guillory said. "Clinton was a polarizing figure, but I think a lot of Democrats, particularly a lot of black Democrats, felt he was mistreated and that his critics took things too far."
But he said should Bowles win the primary, his association with Clinton could prompt mixed responses from voters in the general election in November.
"In the general election, his association with Clinton could attract some voters while repelling others," Guillory said. "I'm not going to say it's not going to be a factor in the election, but I don't know if it's a tilting factor among swing voters."
Brad Woodhouse, Bowles' communications director, said he does not believe Bowles' association with Clinton will be a negative factor in the race. "Anyone that holds Bill Clinton's personal failings against (Bowles) is not only unfair but is probably not someone whose support Erskine is going to gain anyway," he said.
Woodhouse said Bowles plans to maintain his status as front-runner in the race by articulating issues important to N.C. voters such as national security, stimulating the economy and improving education.
He said, "I think the positions he has are thoughtful and consistent with where the U.S. and North Carolina are today."
Guillory said Blue so far has tried to define the race as a two-person one --between him and Bowles.
He said Blue would benefit by winning Marshall supporters and narrowing the race to a two-person one between him and Bowles to avoid a costly runoff.
Guillory said Blue appears to have a well-funded campaign and has the ability to raise even more funds.
"He's not met his potential in terms of fund raising," he said.
Blue has raised $347,332 during the current election cycle, placing him third among his Democratic counterparts, behind Bowles and Marshall, who has raised $461,671.
Cecil Cahoon, communications director for Blue, expressed optimism about Blue's chances to capture the nomination, even though Bowles is positioned as the front-runner.
He said the delay in the primary election will bolster Blue's chances of winning the primary because Blue has focused most of his campaign efforts on talking with and meeting voters instead of running television ads like Bowles.
"A difference between (Blue's) campaign and some other campaigns is that he is traveling the state to have a dialogue with voters," Cahoon said.
"(The delay) gives us more time to do that."
He said Blue will advocate issues such as improving public schools, promoting job growth and economic development, retirement security and a prescription drug benefit during the campaign.
N.C. Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, the only one of the three candidates who has won a statewide election, is often placed third, behind Bowles and Blue, in the race.
"The conventional wisdom is that Marshall is running third right now," Guillory said.
He said that while Marshall has experience in the General Assembly and holds statewide office, she has not had a great deal of media exposure. "While it's not an inconsequential office, it's not on as high a platform," Guillory said. "She's had some difficulty gaining traction, but she's still a very energetic campaigner."
In 1996, Marshall became the first woman to hold a statewide office in North Carolina when she beat out well-known Republican candidate and former NASCAR driver Richard Petty. Four years later she won he re-election bid 54 percent of the vote.
Amy Crook, Marshall's press secretary, disputed Marshall's placement as third among the top three Democratic candidates for the nomination.
She reiterated that Marshall -- a former school teacher -- is the only candidate to have held statewide office, giving her a better understanding of the issues that affect North Carolinians. "Elaine has a lot of grassroots support."
Even after a primary date is set and an election is held, at least two of the Democratic contenders might have to continue battling for the nomination.
Beyle said a runoff could occur between the leading two Democrats given the closeness of the race. By state law, if the winning candidate in the primary does not receive at least 40 percent of the vote, the second-place candidate can challenge that person to a runoff.
Guillory agreed that while a runoff was a real possibility, it would be a costly proposition for the Democrats in their efforts to gain control of the U.S. Senate seat. He said, "Runoffs tend to be divisive, and they cost a lot of money."
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