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Capricious Coattails 

John McCain's recent visit to Raleigh was meant to turn the heads of independent and swing voters toward Richard Vinroot. But is it too little, too late?

"John is not your everyday politician," Vinroot said. "He speaks and lives the truth."

No doubt, as 6-foot-7 Vinroot stood towering over his more diminutive sidekick on the podium, he and his campaign staffers were hoping for a smattering of political stardust to fall from this Capitol Hill giant. Vinroot knows he needs to capture more than a few of North Carolina's elusive independents and even some Democrats to win Nov. 7, and he's confident that McCain's endorsement will make an impact. "McCain's appearance here today will have a great effect on my campaign," Vinroot said.

Chris Neeley, Vinroot's campaign manager, characterized both men as seekers of change who will appeal to North Carolinians who haven't made up their minds yet.

"Independents tend to favor reform candidates," he said. "Both McCain and Vinroot are reformers."

But with only five weeks until the general election, is McCain's endorsement going to resonate with independent voters who haven't made up their minds yet? Democrat Mike Easley has held a consistent edge over Vinroot in statewide polls since February, and the most recent Mason-Dixon poll gives Easley an 11-point lead over Vinroot, 48 percent to 37 percent. To make matters worse for the Vinroot campaign, Easley's boss, Gov. Jim Hunt, had an approval rating of nearly 70 percent according to the most recent statewide poll--a good rating for any politician, and a dangerous sign for any campaign fighting the status quo.

Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life at UNC-Chapel Hill, says the state's independent voters tend to be middle- to upper-income white suburbanites. Often they don't have great familiarity with candidates, but they are crucial to winning in North Carolina. They're also a transient group: Exit polls done during the 1996 and 1998 elections revealed that one in five voters has lived in North Carolina less than six years. This influx of new people from other parts of the country has forced both parties to pull from all their resources and not take any vote for granted.

"Both parties have to maximize their base and reach out to independent voters to win," Guillory says. "Reaching independents is an important factor in this campaign."

It's difficult to measure McCain's direct influence on independents in North Carolina, because George W. Bush had already sewn things up before the state's presidential primary. But they're never an easy group to predict, anyway. McCain said that though he's gotten great support from independents around the country, he knows they're just that--independent--and he can't reign them in.

"They're not going to do what I tell them," he said. "But maybe they'll look a little more closely at this candidate."

During McCain's endorsement speech, he called Vinroot an American success story--"I would be proud to see him as the governor of North Carolina"--and touched on the importance of this election year across the country.

McCain also wasted no time getting to his pet issue: railing against the "incredible amounts" of soft money floating into political campaigns. The majority of this money, he continued, is being used to finance attack ads that are making Americans, particularly youth, cynical and alienated.

"It's wrong, and Americans should reject such a thing," he said. It was a reiteration of his popular campaign during the GOP primaries, a call for campaign finance reform that resonated with independent and swing voters.

Guillory says, though, that Vinroot hanging his star on McCain's campaign finance reform hitch could actually backfire, and Vinroot could look hypocritical.

"McCain has made a whole issue out of eliminating soft money in campaigns," Guillory says. "Vinroot has taken a lot of soft money."

In fact, Vinroot has accepted nearly $1 million in unregulated soft money. Even the McCain-Vinroot endorsement event--the meeting of the self-proclaimed reformers--was filled with well-dressed supporters who donated at least $1,000 to Vinroot's campaign. The venue for the event? A $3.5 million north-Raleigh home overlooking a backyard pool and nearby golf course. Then, three days after receiving McCain's endorsement, Vinroot was off to a National Republican Women's Club fund-raiser in New York City, sponsored by New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Republican presidential contender Steve Forbes.

The juxtaposition of Vinroot portraying himself as a reformer while he's busy collecting soft money donations is something the Easley campaign already is starting to exploit as the race heads into the home stretch. "Richard Vinroot is the poster child for campaign finance reform," says Amanda Crumley, Easley's spokeswoman.

The other half of McCain's message--condemning the negative ads that've become a staple of today's campaigns--seemed out of place, too, considering Vinroot's combative advertising strategy before the primary and general election. During his primary race against Leo Daughtry last spring, Vinroot's ads took on a decidedly negative tone, including one that featured a former Vietnam POW berating Daughtry's military record. Daughtry, who was an Air Force lawyer in Europe and Turkey during the Vietnam War, said the ad was misleading and accused Vinroot of dirty campaigning.

Then in early August, Vinroot said Easley's campaign was covering up details about $1 million spent on consumer protection commercials featuring Easley while he was state attorney general, ads Vinroot said were meant to further Easley's political ambitions. The state Republican Party filed a lawsuit, asking that Easley's office be required to turn over documents, cell phone records, budgets and travel logs related to the ads. The Easley campaign attributed the tactics to the National Congressional Club, a Republican-linked group known for the attack ads it produced for Jesse Helms. The group's former leader, Carter Wrenn, is Vinroot's main strategist in this campaign.

But this aggressive strategy may be backfiring. Television ads are an important way of reaching the state's transient voters, and there are signs that potential voters don't like what they're seeing lately.

"Polls are showing that people don't like negative campaign ads," says Thad Beyle, a professor of political science at UNC-Chapel Hill. Recalling a recent remark by Vinroot, where he referred to Easley as "the little fella," Beyle says: "Vinroot thought it was cute, but there are a lot of 'little fellas' out there. It can be seen as intimidating." The Mason-Dixon poll revealed that Vinroot's unfavorable rating rose from 16 percent in July to 21 percent in September. (Easley's unfavorable rating declined from 12 to 11 percent during the same period.)

On the issues, Vinroot remains a big question mark to many North Carolinians--he's been on both sides of some important debates and has staked out unpopular positions on others. The issue of abortion in particular has given him credibility problems. During his failed 1996 attempt for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, the right wing of the state Republican party gave Vinroot heat for cutting the ribbon at a new Planned Parenthood clinic in Charlotte and for making contributions to the organization for several years. He's made a point to appeal to the conservative base in the state's Republican party this time around, attacking his Republican opponents on abortion during the debates. He now says he didn't know Planned Parenthood provided abortions, and that if elected he'd work to ban full and partial-birth abortions. But 44 percent of North Carolinians are in the pro-choice camp. Vinroot's shifts to the right on traditionally conservative issues may make it harder for him to branch out and appeal to independent voters.

"He's stuck with some positions that work with right-wing leaning people, but not with the general electorate," Guillory says. "He has a dilemma in trying to appeal to a wider base."

Neeley doesn't see any hypocrisy in seeking McCain's endorsement, even when the endorsement speech focused so heavily on campaign finance reform and putting an end to negative campaigning.

"Campaign finance reform is not an issue in this campaign," Neeley says. "It's an issue in Washington, D.C. and not here." He sees what others perceive as negative campaigning by Vinroot as what candidates have always done to get elected, adding that all Vinroot is trying to do is to tell "the truth" about Easley.

"Candidates have always discussed their opponents' records. What we're doing is not negative. It's Richard's responsibility to get Easley's record out," he says. "And candidates have to spend money to get the message out."

Neeley blames the press for not fully exploring both candidates' records and conducting polls with "no credence."

"There are two or three polls every week, and none are correct," Neeley says. He's confident that, in the end, independents will view Vinroot as a maverick on issues ranging from education to taxes to health care and will show up at the polls in support. "Easley is a defender of the system. Richard has a message of reform."

It remains to be seen whether or not McCain's endorsement will help Vinroot's reformer label stick and propel independent voters his way. Chris Fitzsimon, executive director of Raleigh's Common Sense Foundation, thinks that besides some press attention, McCain's visit will have little effect, since North Carolinians still don't understand Vinroot's vision for the state.

"Right now he needs issues, not Republican celebrities," Fitzsimon says. EndBlock

More by Chris Penttila

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