Political Heavyweights Fight in N. Carolina

Who could ever replace Jesse Helms, the conservative firebrand who has served North Carolina in the Senate since 1973? Two high-profile opponents are hoping to be the one.

Meet ā€” or get to know again ā€” Elizabeth Dole and Erskine Bowles, two very different figures who played big roles in Washington in the 1990s.

"Let me give you a hug old fella," Dole said to one supporter. Always perfectly dressed and perfectly pressed, Dole works the trenches.

The former Cabinet official (she held posts in the Reagan and first Bush administrations), Red Cross boss and 2000 presidential candidate grabs hands in every hamlet.

Her Democratic rival is Bowles, the bookish former chief of staff during President Clinton's second term. He's defied expectations not only making this a close race but also with his transformation from reserved to occasionally rousing on the campaign trail.

"Go get your momma. I'm telling you we have the momentum, we have the issues," Bowles said at a campaign rally.

Clinton Who? Clinton Where?

Bowles decided not to bring his former boss in for help.

"I've got to stand on my own," Bowles said, knowing that voters may remember Clinton's indiscretions with a White House intern. "What he did was just plain wrong, and I make no apologies for that. At the same time, I've been very proud of what we did in that administration."

In Dole's corner is her husband Bob, the former Senate leader from Kansas and the 1996 GOP presidential nominee. And Elizabeth Dole is taking full advantage of her famous husband. He employs his trademark dry wit as he ambles around small towns and shopping malls.

Same Answer Stupid

The big issue in North Carolina is the economy. Both candidates are keenly aware of the 62 mills shut down in North Carolina last year, losing 65,000 jobs.

Says Dole: "Jobs, jobs, jobs. Because there are a lot of people hurting."

Now Bowles: "The economy is definitely the number one issue in this state." Races are always close in politically divided North Carolina and experts say two respected and experience candidates makes it even tighter.

"There are two major players," said Ferrel Guillory, an expert on Southern politics. "These are people that will go to the Senate knowing how to deal with national issues."