RALEIGH, N.C. – A $10 billion payout from a Republican Congress to tobacco growers this week and a tidal wave of television advertisements have elevated Rep. Richard Burr (search) into a neck-and-neck race with Democrat Erskine Bowles (search), former President Clinton's White House chief of staff.
For months Bowles held an 8 percent to 10 percent point lead, an advantage many credited to name recognition from his unsuccessful 2002 Senate campaign against Elizabeth Dole (search).
Among other things, the candidates are battling over who should get credit for a tobacco quota buyout package that Congress passed Monday, which is expected to inject nearly $4 billion into the state economy.
Though both candidates predicted the race would tighten and remain in doubt until the end, some within the GOP criticized Burr for not gearing his campaign up earlier.
Those doubts were erased by the congressman's September surge, which saw the release two weeks ago of a Mason-Dixon Polling & Research survey showing Bowles with just a 45 percent to 44 percent lead. More recent polls have kept the race in the too-close-to-call category.
Burr's rise in the polls occurred after he lit up the airwaves with TV commercials linking Bowles with his former boss, Clinton.
"I think we are now ahead," Burr said in an interview before a campaign appearance Tuesday in rural Richmond County. "We clearly have the advantage."
The same polls showed the Bush-Cheney ticket extending its lead in North Carolina over Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry and running mate Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. The White House encouraged Burr to seek the Edwards' Senate seat.
Bowles and his fellow Democrats remain confident, saying Bush lacks the enthusiastic support needed to give the president coattails in North Carolina.
"We always knew it was going to be close," said Brad Woodhouse, Bowles' 2002 communications director, now working to elect Senate Democrats nationwide. "The state is very split in partisan terms."
The Burr ads borrow from Dole's successful 2002 playbook, when she overwhelmed Bowles in the race to succeed Jesse Helms in North Carolina's other Senate seat.
With North Carolina's economy reeling from manufacturing job losses blamed on foreign trade, Burr's ads portray Bowles as "Clinton's chief negotiator" on the North American Free Trade Agreement and efforts to establish permanent normal trading relations to China.
Burr himself has a record of support for free trade.
Another Burr ad links Bowles to Clinton administration troop reductions and other military spending cuts "while Al Qaeda terrorists were declaring war on America."
Bowles has fired back with accusations that Burr is beholden to corporate interests at the expense of North Carolina voters.
"Richard Burr ... always putting the special interests first," said an ad attacking Burr for being one of only 12 House members to vote against a bill to prevent nursing homes from discharging Medicaid patients.
On defense issues, Bowles accuses Burr of voting against veterans and flip-flopping on homeland security. And on Wednesday, Bowles started running ads that feature retired Gen. Hugh Shelton, the retired chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and a North Carolina native.
The $10 billion tobacco buyout, attached to a corporate tax bill, could prove pivotal. In May, Bush said he saw no need for it. The White House reversed course a month later after being told tobacco growers would blame Republicans if there were no deal for the government to pay them for giving up depression-era quotas aimed at keeping leaf prices high.
Burr was not on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, but House GOP leaders made him a negotiator on the final bill, giving him a platform to tout a victory for tobacco farmers.
Though tobacco's importance in the state has waned in recent years, the buyout is hugely important in rural eastern North Carolina, where conservative Democrats often vote Republican in federal elections.
Bowles also took credit for the buyout's passage, citing his trip to Washington last week to lobby two dozen Democratic senators to vote for it even though it lacked a provision giving the Food and Drug Administration regulatory authority over tobacco.
Reynolds American, the nation's No. 2 cigarette maker and an opponent of FDA regulation, is based in Burr's congressional district. Its employees are among Burr's largest donors.