Hagan victory was referendum on Dole

A lot of well-known N.C. Democratic politicians are having a bad case of the what-ifs this morning after state Sen. Kay Hagan of Greensboro came out of political oblivion to knock off a U.S. senator many once regarded as a political rock star.

Hagan, a lawyer and niece of former Florida governor and U.S. Sen. Lawton Chiles, was champing at the bit to run a year ago when better-known Democrats were running away from the race. Dole was considered a lock for the seat held for 30 years by her fellow Republican, Sen. Jesse Helms. But Hagan, an energetic lawmaker who loves to campaign, saw what other potential candidates did not: Dole, a fixture in Washington for 40 years, was vulnerable. She had spent a lot of time trying to raise money for her party and campaigning out of state.

Hagan ran an aggressive campaign, helped by millions of dollars spent by independent campaigns that roughed up Dole's image. In large measure, this campaign was not about Hagan's message. Her focus on issues was sometimes vague. She didn't take a position on the bailout until after Dole opposed it. And she wasn't clear about what she'd do about the war in Iraq when she announced, either.

Voters didn't pay much attention to that. They weighed in on Dole's performance and found it wanting. And when Dole tried to make up ground with an ad questioning Hagan's faith, it backfired. Hagan has been an elder in one of Greensboro's largest churches, where she also has taught Sunday School.

Now Dole wraps up a long, productive and honorable career in public service in Washington that included serving twice as a Cabinet secretary.

For Hagan, the learning curve may be steep. While she has some good ideas, she must develop a reliable way to examine pressing issues, fashion a cogent position and be able to explain it to the public. This campaign was nothing like the intense pressure she will face in Washington to master scores of issues. She'll also need to put together a top-notch staff to handle policy issues and constituent service, and show independence in office.

Fortunately, Kay Hagan is a quick study and a hard worker. She is bold, intense and enthusiastic about representing North Carolinians in Washington – and she knows the hazards of failing to do that job.