Republican Sen. Richard Burr and his Democratic challenger, Elaine Marshall, meet in their first forum this morning in Wilmington, beginning a battle for the most unstable U.S. Senate seat in America.
Except for perhaps the weather, it is unlikely the two will find much to agree on.
Burr has described the conservative Tea Party movement as "the cavalry." Marshall is being supported by liberal activist group MoveOn. They disagree on the new health care law, on U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, on the stimulus package, on the responsibility of BP in the gulf oil spill.
Perhaps not since the Senate race between Republican Sen. Jesse Helms and Democrat Harvey Gantt in 1996 have the ideological lines been so sharply drawn in a North Carolina Senate race.
In her election night speech Tuesday in Raleigh, Marshall, North Carolina's secretary of state, signaled that she intends to portray Burr as a tool of big business.
"Do you want a senator who stands up for Wall Street bankers?" Marshall asked. "Do you want a senator who stands up for big insurance companies? Do you want a senator who stands up for big oil?" Each time the crowd responded with a lusty "nooo.''
A few weeks earlier at the state GOP convention in Winston-Salem, Burr offered his own litany - a high unemployment rate, a rising national debt, a health care law that will make health care worse and a president that apologizes for the United States.
"I got a message for him [President Obama]," Burr said. "If this is change, we don't want it."
Burr, 54, of Winston-Salem, starts the race as the favorite to win a second term, according to most national analysts. He is a well-financed incumbent who has led in the polls most of the year. And he is running in what is shaping up as a Republican-leaning year.
A statewide poll conducted for WRAL-TV showed Burr leading Marshall by a 50-40 percent margin. (SurveyUSA conducted the poll of 617 likely voters on Wednesday and Thursday. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.)
But a survey taken Tuesday by Rasmussen Reports showed Burr leading Marshall by a statistically insignificant 44-43 percent margin. (The survey of 500 likely voters had a margin of error of 4.5 percent.) Any incumbent who is under 50 percent at this stage is considered vulnerable, according to the conservative-leaning polling firm, based in Asbury Park, N.J.
No Senate seat in the nation has been harder to hang on to. The last incumbent to win re-election to Burr's seat was Democrat Sam Ervin in 1968.
Burr starts the race with a huge fundraising advantage. He said he has raised $10 million, far more than Marshall, who reported $846,229 as of the beginning of June. She likely has spent much of that on the primary runoff.
"I don't know if there has ever been a race in North Carolina history where one candidate started off with a $10 million advantage," said state GOP chairman Tom Fetzer, a close Burr ally.
If Marshall is going to compete on the TV airwaves this fall, she may need the help of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the arm of the national party in charge of keeping the Senate in Democratic hands. The committee played a critical role in helping Democrat Kay Hagan defeat Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole in 2008 by spending $11 million in the state.
The senatorial committee backed Marshall's opponent, Cal Cunningham, in the Democratic primary, bypassing Marshall. This week, Marshall received a congratulatory call from Senate Majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the senatorial committee chairman, plans to meet with Marshall.
Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of The Cook Political Report, a Washington-based newsletter, said the senatorial committee will likely set a fundraising goal for Marshall to meet on her own, before committing its own resources.
"They have made it hard for her to meet that goal," Duffy said. "They clearly favored another candidate. Donors nationally know that. They [the Marshall campaign] are going to have to overcome the perception that national Democrats think she can't win."
Thomas Mills, Marshall's campaign strategist, said contributions have been pouring in since her primary victory and he is confident that she can both raise money on her own and get support from the national party.
He noted that Burr spent several hundred thousand dollars on TV advertising this spring, without improving his standing in the polls.
One thing that Marshall may have going for her is gender. Across the nation, from Nikki Haley in South Carolina to Carly Fiorina in California to Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas, women candidates have been winning.
"Women candidates are benefiting from the cynicism about politics," said Gary Pearce, a veteran Democratic strategist. "Voters believe that women are more honest and more in touch with their anxieties in these tough economic times."
Burr has the worst polling numbers of any Republican Senate incumbent on the ballot this year. Analysts often point to several factors: he is still not very well identified with a key issue after seven years, and he is an incumbent in an anti-incumbent year.
"There is real dissatisfaction out there," said Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University. "Many believe it is largely against the Democrats and the Obama administration. But it's a little bit more ambiguous than that, and Burr is an incumbent."
But Burr supporters say there are some intangibles working for them, such as greater intensity among Republicans after having suffered through two difficult elections.
"Richard has the center/right coalition behind him," Fetzer said. "He has a good voting record. He works hard. There is no hint of scandal. There is no obstacle in his path expect the failure of the Republican base to turn out."
Besides money and turnout, the Senate race could very well turn on ideas.
"You're going to see a struggle by both candidates to define the battleground," Pearce said. "They both want to run against Washington. Burr wants to run against big spending and big government. Marshall wants to run on the idea that he is on the big boys' side and not on your side."
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