WINSTON-SALEM — Republican Sen. Richard Burr, armed with a plump campaign treasury but with many voters still uncertain about him, launched his re-election bid Saturday, offering himself as a conservative counterbalance to the Democratic policies of President Obama and Congress.
Speaking to the state GOP convention, Burr pledged to work for smaller government, promising to defund the new health care insurance law and vowing to work to oppose the policies of Obama.
"I will make this promise to you today," Burr told a convention breakfast. "If you help me in every way you can get re-elected Nov. 2, I will do everything in my power to see that no president ever apologizes for America."
The Winston-Salem conservative sharply criticized a raft of new laws passed by the Democratic majority in Washington. The stimulus package has made the economic recovery worse rather than better, he said. Calling deficit spending alarming, he compared the growing U.S. deficit with the economic crisis inGreece.
Although he said he would work to repeal the health care law he claims is increasingly unpopular, Burr said Obama would not sign any repeal.
"But I will do everything along with [Oklahoma Sen.] Tom Coburn and my colleagues to defund any effort to implement this health care bill," Burr said.
Burr was the central figure at the convention, giving two major speeches to the 800 delegates. For much of the year, the center stage of the U.S. Senate race has been held by the Democrats who will not choose their nominee until their runoff June 22.
But while Burr has been off stage, his campaign has been busy raising money and organizing.
Burr announced Saturday that his campaign had raised $10 million.
On Thursday night, Burr raised $450,000 at a fundraiser at the Duke Mansion in Charlotte, according to the Burr campaign. The event was co-chaired by Frank Dowd IV of the Charlotte Pipe & Foundry Co., Henry Faison of Faison Enterprises, former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, Tom Nelson, president of National Gypsum, Walter Price, a US Bancorp executive, and former state Rep. Ed McMahan.
Burr raised a like amount in April at the Greensboro home of Louis DeJoy and former U.S. Ambassador Aldona Wos, an event that featured U.S. Sen. John McCain.
In the 'danger zone'
For Burr this has been a challenging political season. Polls have consistently shown him with a job approval rating under 50 percent - regarded as a danger zone for an incumbent. At a time when the Democrats are on the defensive across the country, Burr and David Vitter of Louisiana are usually lumped together as the nation's most vulnerable Republican senators.
During the GOP primary, Burr was criticized from the right, especially for his vote for a bank bailout last year, although he easily dispatched his three little known opponents to win 80 percent of the vote last month.
Although Burr spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on TV advertising in the spring, there is little evidence from the polls that it has improved his standing.
Burr says he doesn't believe the public opinion poll that shows his Democratic opponents close upon his heels. "I am pleased where we are," Burr said. "We are probably better off than where we designed."
Burr's modest standing in the polls is in part a reflection that after five years since he defeated Democrat Erskine Bowles, he is still not very well known. While he has worked on a few issues such as veterans issues and biomedical research, he has never gained the visibility of former Tar Heel senators such as Jesse Helms, Elizabeth Dole, Sam Ervin and John Edwards.
The seat has also been among the most difficult to hang on to in the country. Ervin in 1968 was the last senator to win re-election to the seat that Burr now holds.
Tom Fetzer, the state GOP chairman, told the convention Saturday that Burr was just the man to end the seat's historic jinx.
Despite the conservative red meat delivered to the GOP on Saturday, Burr's self-deprecating style almost seems designed to draw little attention to himself. In an age of red-hot rhetoric and sound-bites, Burr's style is cool, almost professorial. He prefers detailed discussions of the national debt, and on Saturday a history of the Capitol, to subtly make his political points.
When the Senate is not in session, Burr frequently moves around the state, visiting businesses, schools, Veterans Administrations facilities and other places. It is all done in the typical Burr fashion - driving himself with no aides.
There is a fine line between open campaigning and being a senator. On Tuesday, Burr was carefully nonpartisan, making no mention of his re-election or his potential opponents or the Democrats in Congress, as he visited a trade group in Durham, a charter school in Wilson and a Veterans Affairs clinic in Greenville.
"Everything that has been put together on my schedule has been a Senate request for the purpose of something I am working on right now," Burr said. He will not officially begin his campaign schedule until September, he said.
At the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants offices in a Durham office park, Burr warned about 150 employees gathered in a cafeteria that the federal government is "broke" and that the United States needs to get back in control of its finances.
During a question-and-answer session, Burr said if he were in charge he would reduce the size of government by 10 percent and look at ways to make entitlement programs more sustainable.
A the Sally Howard School, a charter school for the arts in Wilson, Burr became a civics teacher, dividing the 800 students into a House and Senate and showing them how a bill becomes a law - in this case legislation to provide free ice cream to schoolchildren on Thursdays.
'I love my job'
He submitted to dozens of questions from the students.
"For the most part,'' Burr said, "I love my job."
During his visits, Burr was followed by a Democratic Party tracker, who videotaped his comments. When Burr visited manufacturing plants in Edenton, Wadesboro and Pineville, the state Democratic Party attacked him for voting for trade agreements that have cost the state jobs.
Though Burr said he is not yet in campaign mode, his campaign office in Winston-Salem is. Burr notes that there are 10,000 people affiliated with his Facebook page. There are coordinators in every county. College organizations have recently been set up. In his trunk are Burr bumper stickers in various college colors.
"At some point," Burr said, "when you actually turn on the campaign, all of these pieces come together."
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