After months of seeing her image take a beating in TV commercials, Republican U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole wants supporters to know that she's hanging in there.
“Folks, I'm still standing after $18 million,” Dole told a crowd in front of the Wayne County Courthouse on Sunday. That's how much, she said, that has been spent on TV advertising to convince voters Dole should not be re-elected.
Her opponent, Democrat Kay Hagan, meanwhile is trying to close the sale to an electorate that is unhappy with the way things are going in Washington and in the economy.
“We need change in North Carolina and in the U.S.,” Hagan said at Bennett College in Greensboro on Monday. “I think politicians like Elizabeth Dole are ineffective because they are so tied into the special interests and the lobbyists.”
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North Carolina is heading into the final week of one of the most competitive U.S. Senate races in the country. But it is a race that has largely been devoid of overriding issues – even with millions of dollars of attack ads, many of them distorting either Dole or Hagan's records.
There has been little talk of what the two candidates would do about health care, the economy or U.S. foreign policy. Instead, the race has turned into a referendum on President Bush.
“It looks like the election is more about the tide than the swimmers,” said Gary Pearce, a veteran Democratic strategist in Raleigh.
Dole, the 71-year-old former Cabinet secretary and presidential candidate, is traveling across the state this week in a bus – the “Elizabus,” it has been dubbed – giving a summation on why voters should elect her to a second term.
She is focusing on the power of incumbency as she tries to undercut Hagan's charge that Dole has been ineffective. Dole cites her record in helping engineer the buyout of the federal tobacco program, her work to prevent Tar Heel military bases from being closed and her membership on committees important to North Carolina, such as banking, armed services and small business.
To bolster her case, Dole is joined on the trail by Ed Frawley, a Wisconsin man who drew national attention to the substandard conditions at Fort Bragg, where his son was serving in the 82nd Airborne. Frawley said it was Dole who quickly acted to remedy the situation.
Dole: ‘Experience counts'
Along with other Republicans, including presidential candidate John McCain, Dole lately has emphasized that voters shouldn't allow Democrats to win the 60 Senate seats that would enable them to override a presidential veto. If they do, Dole warns, Democrats will raise taxes, make it easier for labor unions to organize and allow appointment of judges who will “legislate from the bench,” Dole says.
Dole's biggest applause comes when she mentions her efforts to crack down on illegal immigrants and demand an English-only policy in the U.S.
Dole says she has taken clear stands in opposition to the $700 billion financial bailout and against immigration bills that she said would lead to amnesty. Dole says she supports opening up offshore oil drilling.
Supporters are worried, but hopeful about her prospects.
“I think she is going to eke out a victory,” said Republican state Rep. Louis Pate Jr. of Wayne County. “This is a conservative state.”
Hagan: ‘Chance for change'
Hagan, who is traveling across the state in a van, notes that public opinion polls show her ahead of Dole.
“This is finally our chance for change,” Hagan, 55, told about 60 backers at the student center at High Point University on Monday.
Hagan recites a litany of ills facing the country: from the financial meltdown, to high gas prices, to a health care system that needs reforming.
While much of the focus of her campaign has been criticizing Dole, Hagan also talks about her own record as a state legislator for the past decade. She talks about balanced budgets, new spending for education and other programs.
Despite TV commercials attacking her record as a state Senate budget chairman, Hagan notes that North Carolina's government has a Triple-A bond rating, the highest possible, and an overfunded state pension plan.
“We do things right in North Carolina,” Hagan said.
And she promises to be back in North Carolina often – something she says Dole has not done.
“I have at least two things going for me,” Hagan said. “I live in North Carolina and my husband can vote for me.”