Former state Sen. Cal Cunningham entered the U.S. Senate race Monday, setting up a Democratic primary between an Army captain fresh from the war in Iraq, the woman who politically sideswiped Richard Petty, and a Harvard-educated lawyer seeking to become North Carolina's first black senator.
Cunningham, 36, a Lexington lawyer and Iraq War veteran, joins the race as the hand-picked choice of the national Democratic Party, which saw him as the strongest potential challenger to Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr.
But Cunningham must first win the Democratic primary in May. He will face N.C. Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, a party veteran who is the favorite of many women, and Kenneth Lewis, a Chapel Hill lawyer who is making his first run for political office.
Cunningham had explored a Senate bid for several months. But while the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in Washington kept hoping that U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge of Lillington would get into the race, an exasperated Cunningham announced last month he would not be a candidate.
When Etheridge decided not to run, the committee began a concerted effort to get Cunningham to reconsider.
"I can't sit on the sidelines while North Carolinians are suffering through times like these - double-digit unemployment, sky-rocketing health care costs and record foreclosures," Cunningham said in an interview. "We've got two wars, one of which I am very personally familiar with.
"During these times, I look to our senior senator, and I am disappointed as to how he has spent his 15 years in Congress after voting down the line to drive the country into the ditch, not doing his part to get us out. I think we can do better."
Cunningham's scenario is similar to what happened two years ago when Kay Hagan, then a Democratic state senator, withdrew from the U.S. Senate contest and then was recruited back into the race. Hagan defeated Republican incumbent Elizabeth Dole.
National parties have taken on an increasingly important role in recruiting and raising money for U.S. Senate candidates; the Democrats provided $11 million on behalf of Hagan. Burr was recruited by the White House when he ran in 2004.
Marshall's campaign quickly portrayed Cunningham as the candidate of "Washington power brokers."
"He's kind of the hokey-pokey candidate - he's in one minute and out the next," said Thomas Mills, a consultant for Marshall. "He's in the race because Washington wants to choose who North Carolina's nominee is going to be."
The Democratic Senatorial Committee is not expected to spend money on behalf of Cunningham in the primary. But it is likely to help Cunningham get access to major Washington political committees - and their money - and provide Cunningham with advice. Cunningham has already assembled a national team of political consultants.
The decision by the DSCC to encourage Cunningham and bypass Marshall could cause bruised feelings among North Carolina Democrats. Marshall has been a well-known figure in North Carolina Democratic circles ever since she upset NASCAR driver Richard Petty in 1996 to win election as Secretary of State. She starts the race far better known than Cunningham or Lewis, and she is particularly popular among female voters.
But Marshall's age - she would be 65 when elected - and her third-place showing in the 2002 Democratic Senate primary apparently made national party operatives skeptical of her chances. There could be an effort to persuade Marshall to withdraw from the primary by offering her a plum appointment, although her campaign said she is firmly committed to the race.
Cunningham said he planned to campaign aggressively for the votes of women during the next five months.
"I have been encouraged to run by a large number of women voters of all ages," Cunningham said.
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