Pundits, pollsters and party insiders appear to be in unanimous agreement that former American Red Cross President and U.S. Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Dole has a commanding lead over the competition for the Republican party nomination.
A poll conducted in early March by the Elon University Institute for Politics and Public Affairs found Dole had 94 percent name recognition. Her closest Republican competitor, Lexington attorney Jim Snyder, had only 18 percent name recognition.
The poll also found 52 percent of North Carolinians surveyed held a favorable opinion of Dole. No other Republican candidate received a favorability rating of higher than 3 percent.
Sharon Spray, director of the Elon poll, said the apparent split among the three top Democratic candidates could benefit Dole, who, according to the poll, holds a wide lead in both name recognition and favorability overall of her opponents.
"The Democrats are going to be fighting among themselves for a while," she said. "Elizabeth Dole is so far ahead of the other Republican candidates she really doesn't have to do that. She can start running against the Democrats right now."
Ferrel Guillory, director of UNC's Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life, said that while Dole appears to be the favored candidate for the Republican nomination, she must work to unite all factions of the Republican Party.
He said Dole has moved further right during the course of this campaign from many of the more moderate stances she held during her brief run for the GOP presidential nomination in 2000.
"Right now she's attempting to show her allegiance to social conservatives in the party," he said. "The people who take part in the Republican primaries tend to be more conservative than the people who participate in the general election."
UNC political science Professor Thad Beyle also said Dole has moved further right in the primary but that trend could reverse as the general election approaches and Dole seeks to court swing voters.
"She isn't the most conservative person there, but she's beginning to sound a little more conservative. I think she had to move that way because of the situation in the party," Beyle said. "She's going to have to do a lot of movement back toward the middle of the political spectrum because that's where the election is fought."
Beyle said Dole's participation in the race could help expand the Republican party's base because her more moderate stances might appeal to voters who feel Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., is too conservative. "I think there's a lot of people in the Republican Party who don't want another Jesse Helms," Beyle said.
But Marc Rotterman, a Republican political consultant in Raleigh, said there has not been a dramatic shift in Dole's positions because she was already conservative on many issues. He added that Dole could expand on Helms' support base. "Helms had his own constituency, and she has the ability to build on it, especially with women," Rotterman said.
He said the biggest challenge Dole will face is not uniting different factions of the Republican Party to win the primary but beating her Democratic opponent in the general election.
But Snyder, Dole's most formidable opponent in the primary according to recent polls, said it would be a mistake for Dole to discount her competition in the primary and focus her sights on the general election this early in the game.
"What the Dole campaign is doing is trying to skip ahead to the general election," Snyder said in a recent interview.
Many political observers say Snyder is fighting an uphill battle because the Republican Party leadership has been supportive of Dole throughout the race.
"She's very much the candidate of the top heads of the Republican Party. It's clear the Republican leadership cleared a path for her," Guillory said, citing reports that earlier in the primary, party leaders encouraged one of Dole's opponents, former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot, to get out of the race by offering to retire a portion of his campaign debt.
Not only has the party leadership been supportive of Dole but so has Helms, who endorsed Dole as his successor.
In addition to the party's efforts to help Dole, President Bush has made three trips to North Carolina during the last few months in which he campaigned for Dole. On one of those visits to Charlotte, Bush spoke at a fund-raiser that raised nearly $1 million for Dole's campaign and the campaign of Rep. Robin Hayes, R-N.C.
Dole is far ahead of her opponents, both Republican and Democrat, in terms of raising money, with $5.3 million thus far. The second highest fund-raiser, Democrat Erskine Bowles, has raised $3.1 million.
Guillory said the party's support for Dole's candidacy and positive media coverage have given a lot of initial momentum to her campaign. "The press coverage has treated her like a celebrity," he said.
While some feel the Republican leadership's support of Dole will help her gain voters, Snyder said he thinks it will turn them away. "It's certainly hurting her," he said. "It's just overkill."
Although Guillory said the likelihood of Snyder or any of the five other Republican candidates beating Dole in the primary is minimal, he said those candidates and the criticisms they make of Dole before the primary could hurt her in the general election. "In a close election, anything could be a factor," he said.
Other factors beyond Dole's control could also affect voters' decisions around election time. "The economy is not helping anybody. It could hurt the Republicans because there is a Republican president," Beyle said.
But Jane Bradbury, Dole's press secretary, said Dole has made employment and revival of the economy the top issues of her campaign. She added that strengthening national defense and education are also issues that Dole will continue to talk about as she continues to tour the state.
Bradbury said Dole's popularity and her ability to articulate issues that are important to N.C. voters will carry her to victory in both the primary and general elections. "What I notice when people meet her as she travels around the state is what a good grasp she has on the issues that are important to North Carolina."
The State & National Editor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.