Bowles Is Mobilizing

Buoyed by Poll, Will Enter Senate Race Soon

Posted September 15, 2003 at 6:39pm

Even as Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) makes his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination official today, former White House chief of staff and 2002 Senate nominee Erskine Bowles (D) is poised to enter the open-seat race to replace him, perhaps as early as this week.

Bowles has recruited a Who’s Who of North Carolina political operatives to guide his campaign, including Gary Pearce, the man behind Edwards’ ousting of Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R) in 1998 and a close adviser to former Gov. Jim Hunt (D). Mac McCorkle, who counseled Bowles in last year’s Senate race, will also play a significant role, sources said Monday.

According to a poll conducted last week for his campaign by the Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group, Bowles enters the race against likely Republican nominee Rep. Richard Burr in significantly stronger shape than when he took on now-Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R) in 2002.

Bowles led Burr 43 percent to 35 percent in the survey, which was in the field Sept. 8 and 9, testing 605 likely voters with a 4 percent margin of error.

The poll was an attempt at a prebuttal to a survey conducted by Research 2000 for the Raleigh News and Observer and set to be released today that showed Burr leading Bowles 43 percent to 37 percent.

In an interview Monday, pollster Geoff Garin pointed out that in a benchmark survey conducted when Bowles entered the race in 2001, Dole held a 61 percent to 19 percent edge.

“We have a 50-point head start compared to where we were two years ago,” Garin said.

Bowles’ entry into the race is not surprising given that he was one of the prime movers urging Edwards to decide whether to run for president, re-election or both offices simultaneously.

After months of indecision, Edwards announced Sept. 8 that he would forgo a second Senate race in order to concentrate on the presidential election full time.

Bowles’ quick entry into the contest reflects his eagerness to jump back into the political fray after a 9-point loss to Dole.

In that contest, Bowles began largely as a political unknown, although his father, Skipper, was a major figure in the state Senate and ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1972.

Erskine Bowles was not a political novice, however, as he headed the Small Business Administration in 1993 and went on to serve as chief of staff to President Bill Clinton from 1996 to 1998.

Bowles ran a credible race (spurred by the roughly $7 million in personal funds he donated to the effort) but could never overcome the star power that Dole carried from her 2000 presidential run and past service as a Cabinet official during the Reagan and first Bush administrations.

Garin argued that Bowles emerged from the 2002 race with a significantly higher positive profile.

Forty-three percent of those polled said Bowles had the “honesty and integrity” to be a Senator, while only 18 percent said he did not; 44 percent said Bowles understood their “needs and concerns,” compared to 20 percent who said he did not.

“It is not just that people know his name, but on a character level the perceptions of him are much more favorable than not,” Garin concluded.

Even so, Bowles is likely to face many of the same charges Dole and Senate Republicans lobbed against him in 2002.

At the top of that list is his strong connections to Clinton, who is not a popular figure among voters in the GOP-leaning Tar Heel State.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee ran ads in 2002 urging voters to “tell Erskine Bowles his Clinton-style attacks have no place in North Carolina.”

Bowles is also likely to face more questions on his support for free trade, a stance that may not play well in the economically depressed textile industry, a major source of income for the state.

Judging by the comments of Burr campaign consultant Paul Schumacher, Bowles can expect more of the same in this race.

“Erskine Bowles is still Erskine Bowles,” Schumacher said when asked about the dynamics of the 2004 race.

Garin concedes that Bowles still carries negatives from the 2002 race but said they are primarily among Republicans “who wouldn’t think of voting for Erskine or any other Democrat.”

Bowles may also have a fight for the Democratic nomination.

Former state Rep. Dan Blue, who lost a primary race to Bowles in 2002, is contemplating joining the race.

Blue, the first black Speaker of the North Carolina state House, took 29 percent of the 2002 primary vote, spending $750,000. He finished a distant second behind Bowles, who won with 43 percent.

There was clearly some bad blood between the two men after the primary; Blue waited more than a month to endorse Bowles and did little to help him against Dole.

Several other Democratic candidates are mentioned, though they are not seen as likely to run.

Rep. Bob Etheridge (D) has not ruled out a bid, but sources familiar with his thinking believe his staff is more enthusiastic about a bid than the Congressman is.

Etheridge would be an appealing general election candidate, having been elected statewide twice as superintendent of public instruction before winning his Raleigh-based Congressional district in 1996.

Etheridge was all but in the 2002 race but ultimately decided against it.

“I can’t imagine giving up a job that I love, a job in which I am making a real difference,” Etheridge said at the time.

His office did not return repeated calls for comment about his interest in a Senate bid.

State Treasurer Richard Moore pledged not to run if Bowles entered the fray but is interested otherwise.

Moore has served as chief financial officer of the state since 2000.