RALEIGH, N.C. – When Elizabeth Dole entered the race to succeed Sen. Jesse Helms, Republicans couldn't have hoped for a better-known candidate than the former Cabinet secretary, Red Cross chief and presidential candidate.
But the star power that has made Dole the prohibitive favorite for the GOP nomination has also made her a target of attacks from her rivals.
The Democrats have branded Dole a carpetbagger and last week unveiled a TV commercial linking her to Enron. After she appeared with President Bush, one of her Republican rivals complained that "Washington insiders" have already picked the next senator from North Carolina.
"I never had an expectation that this thing would be clean, I only had a hope," said Ted Arrington, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Because of Dole's celebrity, this could become the most closely watched Senate race of the year.
Analysts say Dole's opponents have little choice but to try to erase her edge.
"She has three advantages — name recognition, name recognition, name recognition," Arrington said.
Dole spent much of her life in Washington and for years was registered to vote in Kansas, the home state of her husband, former Sen. Bob Dole. Democrats began trying to attach the carpetbagger label as soon as she changed her voter registration to North Carolina, two days after Helms said he wouldn't seek another term. She listed her residence as her childhood home in Salisbury, where her mother still lives.
"I don't think anybody questions her roots in this state," said Scott Falmlen, executive director of the North Carolina Democratic Party. "But I think the fact that she has been in Washington, D.C., so long affects her ability to relate to people in North Carolina."
The primaries are in May. The Democratic contest could become a three-way race between Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, former state House Speaker Dan Blue and former White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles.
Bowles, a Charlotte investment banker, is leading the way in the race for campaign cash, with $1.7 million at the end of December, compared with less than $325,000 each for Marshall and Blue.
Marshall has the advantage of holding a statewide post, while Blue has a solid reputation among liberals and gained recognition a decade ago as the first black speaker of the North Carolina House.
Still, Arrington said most voters would have to struggle to pick the Democrats out of a crowd or recite a significant fact about them. That is not the case with Dole.
"They could identify her in a lineup," Arrington said.
Even so, Arrington and other analysts say Dole will have to reach into blue-collar communities for support — a place where Helms has been successful but other North Carolina Republicans have failed.
A 17-year high in unemployment, primarily because of textile and other manufacturing job losses, has many of those communities struggling to survive.
"The question is, which candidate can help best manage this economic transition so that fewer folks are left behind?" said Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "That is what (voters) are concerned about."
In her own party, Dole faces a field of unknowns who have shown little ability to raise cash. Lawyer Jim Snyder — the one angered by the Bush visit last week — has put nearly $100,000 of his own money into his campaign and is trying to claim Helms' mantle as a social conservative.
However, Helms broke his long tradition of staying out of GOP primaries and endorsed Dole last week.
For her part, Dole has tried to focus on pocketbook issues important to both workers looking for jobs and moderate swing voters. Tax cuts and better unemployment benefits are repeated themes in her recent speeches.
The campaign took a decided turn with last week's ads.
The Democrats' commercial said Dole appeared at a "secret fund-raiser" in September whose host was Kenneth Lay, the former chairman of bankrupt energy giant Enron. The ad said Dole showed up even though she had said her campaign was on hold because of the Sept. 11 attacks.
The Dole campaign called the commercial inaccurate and an example of "reckless negativity" that voters find tiring. Republicans struck back, too, unveiling a TV ad of their own accusing "some politicians" of a smear attack for questioning Dole's patriotism.
"It's ugly politics and it all leads to Washington," the GOP spot concludes. "Tell the Democrats to keep their negative attacks in Washington. North Carolina deserves better."