Bowles In, Etheridge to Follow?

Posted September 24, 2003 at 6:22pm

Former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles (D) will formally enter the open-seat North Carolina Senate contest today, according to Democratic sources.

In an e-mail sent to past supporters Wednesday, Bowles wrote: “I look forward to talking to folks across the state and you can be sure I will devote every ounce of energy and ability I have to this race.”

Bowles, the 2002 Senate nominee in the Tar Heel State, is likely to eschew a high-profile announcement and will instead simply file papers with the Federal Election Committee to create an exploratory committee, said one well-connected Democrat.

His swift entrance into the race may be designed to force the hand of Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-N.C.), who commissioned a poll last week to test his viability in the Senate race.

The poll, which was conducted by the Mellman Group, provided largely positive feedback for the four-term Congressman from Raleigh, including a strong showing against Rep. Richard Burr, the likely Republican nominee.

Mac McCorkle, a Bowles adviser, said the timing of the announcement is “more coincidental than anything else.”

“Erskine had every intention of doing this,” he said. “If it hadn’t been for the hurricane he would have already made an announcement.”

Etheridge, the only tobacco farmer in Congress, held statewide office as superintendent of public instruction from 1988 to 1996 and is clearly interested in the race. According to an informed source, Etheridge, 62, sees this race as perhaps his last shot to get into the Senate.

Although Etheridge’s office did not return several calls seeking comment, Democratic observers confirmed that there is little chance of both Bowles and Etheridge running for the seat.

Former state Rep. Dan Blue (D), the runner-up to Bowles in the 2002 primary, also continues to mull the race. Blue did not return a call seeking comment Wednesday.

This is the second time in as many cycles that Etheridge has seriously pondered a Senate bid. In 2002, he was seen as all but in the race but surprisingly vetoed a run. At the time Etheridge made his no-go decision, it was still unclear whether Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) would run for a sixth term.

Helms wound up bowing out and Bowles lost an open-seat race to now-Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R), 54 percent to 45 percent.

Despite that setback, Bowles was the first name on most lips when Sen. John Edwards (D) officially announced his retirement from the Senate earlier this month. Edwards is vacating his seat after one term to devote his full time and attention to his presidential bid.

Already Bowles has lined up an impressive consulting team to aid him. Gary Pearce, the mastermind behind Edwards’ 1998 victory over then-Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R), is likely to head up the campaign.

Pollster Geoff Garin and general consultant McCorkle, both of whom worked on Bowles’ 2002 campaign, will also be involved. Knowledgeable sources expect Kim Kauffman to handle Bowles’ national fundraising, a role she played last cycle as well.

Bowles’ announcement comes with just six fundraising days left in the third quarter of the year. Reports covering contributions and expenditures from July 1 to Sept. 30 are due at the FEC by Oct. 15.

Through the first six months of the year, Burr was the strongest fundraiser of any non-incumbent Senate candidate in the country, netting nearly $3.5 million for the race.

He announced at a Sept. 12 event with Vice President Cheney that he had crested the $4 million mark in total funds raised, and he is clearly putting on the financial full-court press in the quarter’s final days.

Burr had a lunch event with House Financial Services Committee chairman Mike Oxley (R-Ohio) on Wednesday and is scheduled to do another fundraiser next Tuesday with Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner (R-Va.).

Although he begins from a standing start in the money chase, Bowles has shown an ability to raise considerable sums.

In 2002 he raised and spent more than $13 million — more than half of which ($7 million) came from his own pocket.

Bowles reportedly is not willing to devote as much of his own money to this race, but his supporters believe his national donor network derived from his time in the Clinton White House, as well as the need for national Democrats to hold their open seats, will ensure that he is well-financed.

Polling done for Bowles as well as an independent survey show that a race with Burr is likely to be a nip-and-tuck affair.

In his own poll, conducted by Garin earlier this month, Bowles led Burr 43 percent to 35 percent.

A Research 2000 poll in the field at nearly the same time put Burr on top 43 percent to 37 percent.

Bowles led Blue 31 percent to 17 percent in a Democratic primary matchup in the Research 2000 poll; no head to head with Etheridge was released.