With a functioning Republican Senate in the balance, the race for the seat of retiring Democratic Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) is one of most closely watched in the country. The match pits GOP Rep. Richard Burr against Erskine Bowles, a top Clinton-administration official who failed in a similar bid against Elizabeth Dole (R.) last time around.
From the looks of things, Bowles appears to be sitting pretty. Recent polling by the Mason-Dixon firm shows the Democratic candidate with a 15 to 25 point lead over Burr in nearly every portion of the state, and with a name identification approaching 90 percent. In contrast, Burr has just 55-percent voter name recognition. For Bowles, that should come as good news: Generally, voters must know of you before they make a decision about you.
But in the first candidate ad of the season, released last week, it’s Bowles who’s introducing himself to the voters.
As campaign ads go, it’s near flawless, wrapped thickly in warm and fuzzy pictures: Bowles on a porch on bended knee, rubbing an old lady’s hand reassuringly as he listens attentively. Bowles at a dais, delivering a speech before a huge American flag. Bowles at his desk, chewing pensively on his eyeglasses and scribbling officiously. Bowles at a diner, chatting with an appropriately diverse table of old folks. Bowles at an assembly line, giving a firm handshake to a worker as sparks fly in the background. Bowles in a tobacco field, walking with a farmer before a passing tractor. And Bowles–well, you get the idea.
With these campaign glamour shots are plenty of middle-of-the-road statements and references to the “folks” and “good people” of North Carolina. The narrator notes that Bowles has been married 33 years, is a devoted father, and that “for three decades he’s built and run companies.” The ad closes with Bowles pledging the Big Three: “Stand up to the special interests, set aside partisan politics, and put the people of North Carolina first.”
What’s telling about the ad, however, is what Bowles leaves out. Despite five years in the Clinton administration–first as director of the Small Business Association, then as White House deputy chief of staff, and finally White House chief of staff itself–only scant attention is paid to these seemingly strong credentials.
Of his work for the SBA, for example, the narrator merely notes that Bowles “served as head of the Small Business Administration, where he cut red tape.” Of his tenure as chief of staff, all that’s mentioned is that “Bowles helped bring Republicans and Democrats together to pass the first balanced budget in a generation.” While there is a brief black-and-white photograph of Bowles in the Oval Office, he’s not surrounded by anyone voters might recognize. Someone like, say, Bill Clinton.
That’s because what sank Bowles last time around was Clinton–and his reintroduction to North Carolina’s voters is aimed at whitewashing that part of his record. Or more specifically, at whitewashing his involvement in the three major Clinton-administration policies that antagonized North Carolina’s three most symbolic industries. As SBA head, the candidate pitched hard for Hillary’s disastrous health-care plan and fought whole-hog for NAFTA. The former didn’t go over so well with the state’s budding hi-tech entrepreneurs, and the latter was adamantly opposed by North Carolina textile manufacturers. (Bowles has since recanted his free-trade sins.) As chief of staff, Bowles was a top lieutenant in Clinton’s war on tobacco–a tough sell in a tobacco state.
Not surprisingly, Clinton failed to carry the state in his two landslide victories. In 2000, the state gave its biggest rebuke to the former president, backing Bush over then-Vice President Al Gore by 13 points. Indeed, it was Bowles’s service in the Clinton Administration that sank him in 2002.
North Carolinians don’t appear to have forgotten this legacy. Even with near-90 percent name recognition and what effectively has been a four-year campaign, Bowles still can’t muster more than 45 percent of the statewide vote. Indeed, only in reliably Democratic Raleigh-Durham does Bowles break the halfway mark, with a 54 to 29 advantage. Given Burr’s low voter name recognition, that suggests Bowles can’t even beat himself. Even the second time around.
–Sam Dealey is a writer in Washington, D.C.