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Helms supporters old and new give him the victory in a race billed as a fight for the soul of North Carolina.


U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms won a fifth term Tuesday, defeating Democratic challenger Harvey Gantt as the former Charlotte mayor failed to dig deeper into Helms' support from white voters than he did in 1990.

With 53 percent of the vote counted, Helms defeated Gantt 53 percent to 46 percent.Gantt won the votes of fewer than four in 10 white voters Tuesday - about the same as 1990. He again garnered more than 90 percent of the black vote, according to results of surveys conducted with voters.

``I thought the state had made more progress than what the voters have given us,' Ulysses Bell of Greensboro said at Gantt headquarters in Charlotte. ``This vote says North Carolina is more comfortable living in the past than trying to build a positive bridge to the future.' said Bell, who is black.

Helms led among men, while Gantt held a narrow lead among women.

Helms also won the votes of one in five Democrats. In their first contest, Helms took about a quarter of the Democrats voting away from Gantt.

Helms' support among conservative Democrats has led to the segment being labeled ``Jessecrats.'

The survey of 2,125 voters as they left 40 randomly selected polling places around North Carolina was conducted by Voter News Service, a partnership of The Associated Press and television networks. The margin of sampling error for each result was plus or minus 3.5 percentage points for all voters, higher for subgroups.

In what grew into a two-part epic struggle between Helms and Gantt, which in some eyes went beyond a battle for a mere Senate seat to a battle for the soul of North Carolina, 1996 in some ways was less bitter and bruising than 1990.

This was partly because Helms' campaign was somewhat more low-key than his four past Senate runs, which gained national attention for their financial prowess, direct-mail machinery and hard-line themes.

Having cut his ties with his longtime political organization, the Congressional Club, Helms also fired veteran media adviser Alex Castellanos, credited with some of Helms' most ferocious TV attack ads in the past.

Though Helms continued to brand Gantt as a ``liberal' - and accused Gantt of using his minority status to obtain a lucrative TV station license a decade ago - Helms did not play the final card that closed the 1990 campaign. That was the controversial ``white hands' TV spot designed to tap white male resentment of affirmative action.

Though Helms appeared relieved after the spring primary when Gantt emerged as the nominee over white pharmaceuticals executive Charlie Sanders, Gantt argued from the outset that his experience in running against Helms six years ago made him uniquely qualified for this campaign.

Gantt's approach to 1996 was to build on the name recognition he gained in the 1990 campaign, a story that gained international play because of its sheer novelty. This was the story of a child who grew up in poverty, was the African-American to integrate Clemson University, and first black mayor of North Carolina's largest city, taking on a states-rights advocate and godfather of the modern conservative movement.

This time, Gantt's campaign was less concerned with broad-based symbolism than it was with message, with coalition-building and with understanding the demographics of a state that grew by more than six percent since 1990.

But few could underestimate the power of the Helms mystique, beloved by supporters for his unbending conservatism in an age where both sides tend more to the middle of the road.

In the closing weeks of the campaign, Gantt hammered away at Helms' integrity, questioning large donations to the Jesse Helms Center by foreign countries and large corporations. The charges didn't seem to stick, whether because the Clinton Administration was embroiled in more serious allegations or because Helms' honesty had rarely been questioned in the past.

Gantt drew most of his support from the nearly half of all voters who describe themselves as moderates. Gantt took almost six in 10 of those in the middle.

Helms took about four out of five conservative voters. He also took one out of seven voters who called themselves liberals.

Helms and Gantt each held on to more than 90 percent of their 1990 supporters. Gantt won six in 10 voters who did not vote in their first meeting.

Among new voters since 1990, three-quarters are white and about one in five are black. About three in 10 of the new voters call themselves liberal, significantly more than the state overall.

Almost half of all North Carolina voters polled said they were moderates. More than a third were conservatives, while about one in six called themselves liberals.

In Helms' last campaign appearance in the Triad on the afternoon before the election, hundreds of supporters had waited in front of the old Davidson County Courthouse in Lexington, just to get a glimpse of a man who has become a conservative icon not only in North Carolina, but across the country.

Waiting on the sidewalk were farmers, grandmothers, retired tobacco workers, young parents. Some of them fit the rural, conservative Christian mold that have formed the rough sketch by out-of-state reporters.

And some of them didn't.

``I think Helms has a strong appeal for my generation, because he stands for fiscal responsibility,' said Dale Leonard, 30, a UNCG student and Davidson County native. ``I trust a person from Sen. Helms' generation more than the baby boom generation.'

As the wind whipped up and the sky turned gray over the old courthouse, the emcee for the rally announced that the Helms campaign's RV hit traffic and hadn't yet crossed the county line, even though the the crowd had been waiting nearly an hour.

People looked around and murmured for a moment. Then the guitar and fiddle player started taking requests, a local minister gave the benediction, and everyone stayed until the big bus pulled up Main Street and Jesse Helms emerged.

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