With the upcoming Nov. 2 elections, Tar Heels have more on their minds than the presidential race. John Kerry’s running mate, Senator John Edwards, who upon accepting his vice-presidential bid vacated his seat in the Senate, leaves North Carolina voters with a choice between two replacements: Democrat Erskine Bowles and Republican Richard Burr. Three key issues dominate the race: jobs, education, and healthcare. Given North Carolina’s voting history, this year’s race promises to be tight. An early October poll conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research Inc., indicates a narrowing gap between the two candidates, with Bowles capturing 45 percent, Burr securing 44 percent, and undecided voters comprising 11 percent of the sample. Across the state, Bowles, who lost the last Senate race to Elizabeth Dole by a wide margin, now has a strong lead in the Triangle, his home region of Charlotte, and southeastern North Carolina. His opponent Burr, on the other hand, is favored in his home region of the Triad, as well as the Northeast and the mountains.
Over the last four years, approximately 80,000 people have lost jobs in North Carolina’s manufacturing, textile and furniture industries, and thus it is no surprise that the most critical issue facing the candidates is the economy. Burr suggests stimulating economic growth by increasing funding of the state’s community colleges for retraining and making tax cuts permanent to benefit the middle class, while Bowles argues the focus should be on trade and stopping the loss of jobs to overseas markets.
Both men agree that education is also of special importance and, accordingly, they both support the funding of higher education Pell Grants. However, while Burr praises President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, Bowles criticizes the administration for proposing the bill and then failing to provide the money to make it work. Instead, he proposes to increase funding for early childhood education programs and after-school programs, which could help prevent teen pregnancy and juvenile crime.
Much like the current presidential race, both candidates are taking advantage of their opponent’s records. While Bowles, at times, has alluded to his role in balancing the federal budget as former President Clinton’s chief of staff, he has spent the majority of the campaign avoiding any further association with Clinton, who is a polarizing figure in North Carolina. Consequently, Burr has used Bowles’s record to his advantage. In recent weeks, he has run two ads tying Bowles to former President Clinton and to tax increases and trade deals he supported as a member of the Clinton administration.
Whether these ads were effective remains to be seen; however, the percentage of voters who view Bowles favorably dropped from 41 percent in July to 37 percent in recent weeks, and the percentage that view him unfavorably climbed from 19 percent to 28 percent.
The issue of healthcare also connects the Senate race with the presidential race, in that it evokes the “flip flop” criticisms typical of the Iraq War debates. Bowles consistently alludes to Burr’s flip-flopping in his support of the Medicare bill and failing to vote for policies such as the re-importation of drugs that, he says, could help make health care more affordable. Burr counters such claims by noting that he supported President Bush’s proposed expansion of community health centers and the passage of medical liability reform.
A final issue at stake in this election is the current 3.8 billion dollar tobacco buyout in North Carolina. Burr helped negotiate the legislation that recently cleared Congress, while Bowles lobbied Democratic senators to let the bill come to a vote, an alternative that he argues could have put 790 million more dollars in the hands of North Carolina farmers. Regardless, both candidates are sharing credit for the buyout. Some have suggested that the tobacco buyout passing on Burr’s watch will increase his chances for this seat, while others argue that the buyout is only a marginal issue, and voter turnout and President Bush’s coattails will likely play bigger roles in the outcome.