September 22, 2004,
In July, U.S. history buffs marked the bicentennial of America's most famous duel, in which a vice president killed a former Treasury secretary. This year's Senate race in North Carolina won't end as gruesomely as the Burr-Hamilton showdown of 1804, but it does feature what may be the next-best thing: An actual relative of Aaron Burr fighting for the seat now occupied by veep contender John Edwards.
"Yes, we're related," says GOP congressman Richard Burr, who is taking on Democrat Erskine Bowles. "But there are no direct descendants of Aaron Burr left. My ancestor is one of his brothers."
Is he proud of this tie? "Yes, I am," says Burr, "though history has proved to shine a different light on him, because of the treasonous acts." (Burr went on trial for treason in 1807; he was acquitted, but hardly exonerated.)
Our Burr isn't headed for the same ignominy, but he is in trouble: A new poll, taken for a couple of TV stations, shows the Winston-Salem congressman trailing Bowles, 50 percent to 40 percent. The Democrat is a much-improved candidate from two years ago, when he took 45 percent of the vote in a loss against Elizabeth Dole. He's a personally wealthy man who will make sure he has all the cash he needs this fall.
Yet Burr remains optimistic. "We're exactly where we intended to be at this point," he says. "In terms of our organization, our grassroots, our staff, our fundraising we're doing all of the tactical things right."
That may be true, but Burr surely isn't where he wants to be in a strategic sense.
"He's been slow getting out of the gate," says Tom Ellis, the man who ran all of Jesse Helms's Senate campaigns and helped pull off Ronald Reagan's 1976 miracle in the North Carolina GOP primary. "The race is his to lose, but he must get charging."
The need to get charging explains why Burr started airing his first negative ad about a week ago: He knows he has to make up some ground against his opponent. The ad links Bowles to Bill Clinton, whom Bowles served as White House chief of staff and, before that, as head of the Small Business Administration. The first line puts the matter bluntly: "Erskine Bowles and his old boss Bill Clinton worked together to pass the largest tax increase in history."
The Bowles campaign has questioned the accuracy of this statement, and not without cause: The 1993 tax hike wasn't as big as the one passed in 1982. But Burr's central goal of casting Bowles as a tax increaser may stick, and there would be truth enough in the general allegation.
Up to now, no poll is current enough to have measured what impact this theme has had on Bowles's lead. If the next published poll shows Burr at least gaining on Bowles, then Republicans will have cause of hope; if not, then Burr will have to pray for an October surprise, such as a major Bowles blunder or a nationwide GOP surge.
On September 27, the candidates will debate for the first and perhaps only time Burr has accepted nine debate invitations, but Bowles has agreed to only this one. It's a classic frontrunner's approach.
It wasn't until recently that Burr became a regular presence on television. Early on, he decided to avoid spending much money on TV ads. It's a choice that will either demonstrate his shrewdness or haunt him for years to come.
"We concluded that people weren't paying attention to the race earlier," says Burr, who looks uncannily similar to Dan Quayle. (When I mentioned this to him, Burr smiled: "Marilyn Quayle once said that to me.")
In his first set of ads, Burr highlighted his work on the intelligence committee and his opposition to trade deals with China. "I voted eight times against giving China special trade status," he says in one of them, playing to the conventional wisdom that North Carolina leans protectionist. Burr himself is a mixed bag when it comes to trade policy: He voted for Trade Promotion Authority (and says he intends to do so again next year, when reauthorization comes up) as well as the free-trade agreement with Australia this summer. But he also voted against the free-trade pact with Morocco in July and says he opposes the Central American Free Trade Agreement "in its current form."
Although Bowles's own record on trade is just as mixed, Burr maintains that there's a stark difference between the two candidates broadly. "We face a choice between letting the government take over our health care or fixing the system we've got," says the congressman, who was first elected to the House in 1994, in the wake of Clinton's failed health-care initiative. Burr's most notable activity in Washington may be pressing the Food and Drug Administration to speed up its approval process for new drugs and medical devices.
The hidden presence in the race is John Edwards, who announced he would not seek reelection to the Senate so that he might concentrate on winning the Democratic nomination for president. He failed, but wound up as John Kerry's running mate. Ever since, one of the favorite topics among North Carolina politicos has been whether the vice-presidential nomination will influence the Senate race.
Some believe Edwards's name on the ticket will increase black turnout in North Carolina and thereby help Bowles. Others contend that it will nationalize the race in a way that aids Burr. When President Bush visits North Carolina, Burr is unfailingly by his side; when Kerry swings through, Bowles usually has something better to do. (In 2000, Bush won the state with 56 percent of the vote, and appears on track to carry it again; the president was up by three or four points even before his post-convention bounce.)
Bowles may be wary of Kerry, but Burr isn't afraid of Edwards and whatever effect he may have on the Senate race. "When I announced for this race 18 months ago, I assumed John Edwards would be my opponent," says Burr. "And for a whole year, I campaigned against him."
Much of this campaign has featured Burr driving himself around the state, introducing himself to voters outside of the Fifth District. This practice has raised eyebrows among those who think it's possible to do such a thing when you're running for the House and much more difficult when you're campaigning in a big place like North Carolina. If Burr eventually loses, his critics will say not only that he faced a strong opponent, but also that he never should have seized control of his own operation i.e., trying to be everything from his own personal chauffeur to his own campaign manager, instead of just a candidate.
But if he wins and victory is by no means out of the question he may have a shot at becoming the second most celebrated Burr in American history.