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Former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, standing in an art gallery exhibiting political cartoons satirizing U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, announced his campaign Wednesday to unseat the incumbent Republican.

Gantt, the fourth Democrat to file for the May 8 primary, called Helms an ``out-of-step' leader who represents the politics of ``divisiveness and cynicism.'``The people of North Carolina are ready for this new kind of senator - a senator who will stand up for their interests, not some out-of-step agenda of his own,' Gantt said.

Also Wednesday, Leon C. Nixon, who said he switched his registration from Democrat to Republican six months ago, became the second candidate to challenge Helms in the GOP primary.

Gantt, the first black person elected mayor of Charlotte, made his announcement in a downtown Raleigh community decorated with red, white and blue ballons. About 150 people attended - many who had been given miniature American flags.

``North Carolinians want someone who can encourage their hopes and aspirations,' Gantt said. ``Can Mr. Helms represent us adequately in the '90s? I say no. Where will Mr. Helms stand? Where he has always stood - immovable, entrenched, rigid even in the face of change - satisfied to promote his own political agenda.

``Mr. Helms has managed to grab headlines on public funding for the arts,' insurance program for the working people of North Carolina.

``He has spent a lot of time devising schemes to invade the privacy of America's bedrooms, but I have never heard him speak to parents of this nation about the high social costs of teenage pregnancy, child abuse and high infant mortality rates.'

Carter Wrenn, a top Helms campaign adviser, called Gantt's remarks ``pretty negative.'

``Take what he says about eastern Europe,' said Wrenn, executive director of the National Congressional Club. ``He talks about the triumphs of democracy over communism. The reason for that is because of the defense policies of President Reagan and Jesse Helms. ... Because they worked, Gantt's conclusion is we ought to get rid of them.'

Wrenn said Gantt wrongly tried to paint Helms as being against better education, health care and other issues. He said Helms thinks many of those issues are best handled by free enterprise and not by government.

``It's not that Helms is against them,' Wrenn said. ``It's just that he believes that they should be handled in a different way than Harvey Gantt thinks.'

Gantt, 46, is an architect. He was the first black student admitted to Clemson University, where he graduated with honors in 1965.

In 1983, he became the first black elected mayor of Charlotte. Sue Myrick, a Republican, defeated him in a bid for a third term in 1987.

In discussing Helms, Gantt repeatedly sought to minimize talk about the role of race in the campaign.

``We're going to talk about what is relevant to the people of North Carolina,' he said.

Asked if he would have any special message for African-Americans, Gantt said, ``I hope I'm sending a message to North Carolinians, not just African-Americans.'

He declined to discuss the chances of Democratic opponents District Attorney Mike Easley of Brunswick County and former state Sen. R.P. ``Bo' Thomas of Hendersonville. The fourth Democratic candidate is Robert Hannon of Greensboro.

In the GOP primary, Nixon, 66, joins Helms and George Wimbish, a Charlotte businessman who lost to Helms in the 1984 primary.

Nixon, who described himself as a retired civil rights worker, merchandiser and general contractor, said he decided to run ``to try to make Dr. (Martin Luther) King's dream come alive.'

In 1970, while a Democrat, Nixon of New Bern ran in the primary against U.S. Rep. Walter Jones in the 1st District and received 13 percent of the vote.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.


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