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Monday March 27th

U.S. Senate kicks off with primary ?ling

Three Dems vying to challenge Burr

Upper Left: Cal Cunningham, Bottom Left: Richard Burr, Top Right: Elaine Marshall, Bottom Right: Kenneth Lewis
Buy Photos Upper Left: Cal Cunningham, Bottom Left: Richard Burr, Top Right: Elaine Marshall, Bottom Right: Kenneth Lewis

U.S. Senate hopefuls in North Carolina can now officially declare candidacy in a race that political observers say hasn’t yet made the public’s radar.

Three Democratic frontrunners are expected to sign on to challenge incumbent U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., first elected in 2004.

N.C. Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, Iraq War veteran and former N.C. Sen. Cal Cunningham, and Durham attorney Kenneth Lewis have said they plan to run in a primary that is still wide open, according to polls of N.C. voters.

Tom Jensen, director of Democratic polling firm Public Policy Polling, said the most important thing for all four candidates will be to raise money and attract public attention.

“The first one who can raise enough money to get on TV and get their name ID high enough will probably win the primary,” said Chris Hayes, a senior analyst with the conservative John W. Pope Civitas Institute.

None of the three Democratic candidates are well known in North Carolina, Hayes said. Marshall, who has been secretary of state since she defeated NASCAR legend Richard Petty in 1996, is the only one who has held statewide office.

Cunningham, a former UNC student body president, served just one term in the state Senate. Lewis worked for President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign but has never held office.

In a Civitas poll of state Democrats released in January, 75 percent of respondents said they weren’t sure which candidate they preferred.

Burr has a decisive lead in fundraising — his campaign reported more than $4.3 million on hand at the end of the year, compared with about $300,000 or less for the Democrats — but isn’t faring particularly well in terms of his public profile.

Hayes said that the poll showed Burr at about 35 percent approval and that about half of those polled had no opinion of him.

And in an election cycle that is expected to be tough on incumbent Democrats, Burr has been called one of the Senate’s few vulnerable Republicans.

Ferrel Guillory, a UNC journalism professor who specializes in Southern politics, said a combination of factors contribute to Burr’s low profile and potential vulnerability.

“One is that he’s in his first term; this is his first re-election,” Guillory said. “Second, this is a state that since Sen. (Jesse) Helms died … we’ve not had a senator stay up there very long recently.”

Burr has kept a fairly low profile in Congress, Hayes said.

In 2008, U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., ousted incumbent Republican Elizabeth Dole with considerable fundraising assistance from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Guillory said that the committee has been paying some attention to Cunningham but that each candidate still must prove that they can connect with voters.

“You have a female candidate, a young up-and-coming Democratic candidate with a little bit of soldier experience, and then you have a black candidate in a state that Obama won,” Guillory said.

“To some extent, the field of Democratic candidates is symbolic of where the Democratic party in this state is right now. It’s not dominated by any one well-known person.”

Jensen predicted that the general election will focus on issues such as the struggling national economy and health overhaul legislation now before Congress.

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