Gantt doesn't dwell on past defeats

The voice on the other end of the phone belongs to the first black student enrolled at Clemson University and Charlotte's first black mayor.

But with polls showing the country could elect an African American president within days, Harvey Gantt is recalling his most painful defeats and what now may be called “The Harvey Effect.”

Gantt, a Democrat, unsuccessfully ran against then Republican Sen. Jesse Helms in 1990 and 1996. Both times polls close to Election Day showed him leading.

“It's not something I dwell on a lot,” said Gantt, who would have become the first Southern black senator since Reconstruction. “It hurt.”

Amid the enthusiasm over Sen. Barack Obama's candidacy, there is anxiety among some supporters, particularly African Americans, that he could fall prey to “the Bradley Effect.”

It refers to former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley who lost a 1982 race for governor that polls showed him leading. It describes political races where black candidates receive less support from white voters than polls suggest.

In both his Senate races, polls showed Gantt with as much as 49 percent of the vote and a seven- to eight-point lead.

The week before the vote in 1996, he urged Democratic party loyalists to take 15 friends or co-workers to the polls.

“While I'm feeling confident, while I'm feeling ebullient, I know that the job's not over yet,” he told a crowd. “I've run against Jesse Helms before. And we were feeling good about five or six days out. And we didn't win.”

The next week he was wondering what went wrong. Now, he thinks he knows. “We didn't get any of the undecideds.”

Pundits said Helms got them by using race and attacks ads.

One famous Helms ad depicted a white man receiving a rejection letter, while a voice told viewers that the job went to a minority.

“When you get to the end a lot of people don't want to tell pollsters” how they are going to vote, Gantt said this week. “It could be race. It could be other factors.”

Gantt, who now runs an architecture firm, says he is closely watching how Obama fares in North Carolina. He said he believes a possible repeat of The Harvey Effect has been overplayed by the media.

“It's something that happened (long) ago,” Gantt said. “It's happening less and less.” Fred Clasen-Kelly