All the political analysts Creative Loafing spoke to agreed that for the moment, Dole is 10 to 15 points ahead of Bowles. The race is hers to lose, they say. Most surveys show that 93 percent of North Carolina's voting population knows who she is, a phenomenally high number usually only enjoyed by sitting presidents of the United States. For now, Dole has raised nearly twice as much money as her opponent. Even the popular issues of the moment, the economy and the war on terrorism, seem to favor Dole and Republicans in general. But despite all this, those in the know are still predicting a tight finish in November. A lot can, and probably will change in seven weeks, they say.
First, look for the money gap between the two to narrow. With Democrats holding a narrow margin in the Senate -- 50 Democrats, 49 Republicans and 1 Independent -- the race is important to each party, one of only five or six races around the country that are competitive enough to determine which party will rule the Senate.
"The interest groups aligned with each party will put a lot of money into this race," said UNCC political science professor Ted Arrington.
Because Dole is so well known, her fortunes are in large part tied to those of President Bush and the national Republican Party. If he retains high numbers, so should she. But if he doesn't, she'll have a hard time fighting her way back up the charts.
And there's likely another powerful force that will be at work here, the impact of which doesn't usually show up in polls until the last minute: the Democrats' increasingly well-organized get-out-the-vote machine.
Things aren't as simple as they were when NC voters elected Jesse Helms to the US Senate in 1972. Over the last decade, the white conservative blue collar voters in the Western and Eastern parts of the state who consistently elected Helms have lost ground to moderate, ticket-splitting Republican and unaffiliated voters who have flocked to the state's urban areas. They're a volatile, often progressive group that could do just about anything at the last minute.
The 21 percent growth in population the state has experienced in the last decade has largely found its way to 15 urban counties with more votes than the other 85. The race will likely be decided in these population centers -- places like Wake, Durham, Orange and Mecklenburg counties. Unaffiliated voters, who now make up 17 percent of the state's voter registration, will ultimately decide who wins with some help from the moderate Democrat and Republican ticket-splitters. The competition between Bowles and Dole for these swing voters will be fierce -- and risky for each of them. To go after these voters, both will have to risk alienating their core constituencies or boring them into staying at home on election day.
Among the ticket splitters, women voters will be the most critical for both campaigns. Fifty-five percent of registered voters in North Carolina are female. So are 59 percent of registered Democrats and 51 percent of Republicans and unaffiliated voters.
"Unaffiliated women or ticket-splitting Democrat women will be more inclined to be supportive of a Dole candidacy," said John Davis executive director of NCFREE, a nonpartisan think tank in Raleigh.
They'll likely identify with the Salisbury native's resume, rather than her conservative Southern roots. Dole has no children and put off marriage to pursue her career, which included Duke University, Harvard Law School, the job of Secretary of Transportation under President Reagan, the presidency of the Red Cross and a brief campaign for president of the US.
But Dole can't wear these accomplishments or her progressive nature on her sleeve without putting off her easily offended conservative base, folks with a tendency to stay home on election day over a speck of mud on a candidate's pro-life record.
"If Dole plays to that moderate crowd, she might put off some conservative Republicans," said Andrew Taylor, an associate professor of political science at North Carolina State University. "If she plays up the Liddy Dole, southern gentle lady, she might turn off more progressive women who'll think she's Jesse Helms in a skirt."
The Bowles campaign could do a great deal of damage to Dole's favor with her right-wing base by questioning her conservative credentials on issues like abortion and gun rights, issues she likely won't want to talk about in the general election.
Then again, Bowles has a lot further to go than Dole to pull together his fragmented Democratic base. While Dole took 80 percent of the vote in the seven-candidate Republican primary, Bowles won his by nine-way primary with 43 percent.
Resume to resume, Bowles and Dole are an equally qualified pair of white-bread suits. But Bowles' record, which includes a successful investment banking career, membership in exclusive country clubs that don't exactly cater to African-Americans, and a stint as President Bill Clinton's deputy chief of staff could turn into a source of conflict with several of his key constituencies.
Chief among Bowles' problems is his need to turn out black voters, who vote Democratic over 90 percent of the time and make up 34 percent of registered Democrats in the state. Though Bowles' African-American primary opponent Dan Blue endorsed him after the primary, Bowles won less than a third of the black vote across the state in the primary.
Short of creating a racial issue in the next six weeks that will resonate with the African-American community, Bowles' best hope of selling himself to the black community is his experience working for Clinton.
"Clinton is an extremely popular figure with the black population in this country," said Taylor. "However, there is a considerable risk of using the Clinton factor in the black community because Clinton is not very popular in the rest of the state."
Even if Bowles doesn't play the Clinton card with African-Americans, it could still be a problem for him if it is used wisely against him
"Dole is going to make an effort to tie Bowles to Clinton and he has to figure out to finesse that," said Eric Heberligh, an assistant professor at UNCC's political science department.
There are a lot of potholes either of the candidates could step in on the way to the Senate.
Though much of the media has begun to refer to Dole as "scripted" and unable or unwilling to stand on her own two feet without the help of a teleprompter, Bowles' career as a public speaker has been largely scripted as well. It's unknown how charismatic or quick on his/her feet either candidate really is. Even during the primary, neither one has faced a serious challenge on the issues, says UNC-Chapel Hill political science professor Thad Beyle.
The difference between them is that Bowles has nothing to lose by tangling on the issues, while anything less than a flawless performance by Dole will shave something off her considerable lead in the race. It's hard to say how Dole will do on the stump with Bowles at her heels.
Charlie Cook, one of Washington's most astute and impartial political analysts, is the author of The Cook Report. Last month, Cook wrote that the one thing he's learned about Dole from her short presidential bid is that she's "a perfectionist who likes to control her environment." While this strategy has served her well until now, Cook predicts she'll take few risks.
"She appears to have a very wide lead, but it may not be very hard," Cook wrote in August. "Voters seem to like her, but may not be solidly committed to her. It's entirely possible that Bowles could run a letter-perfect campaign and still lose. It's equally possible that Dole could make a big stumble, particularly if she struggles with the unpredictability of a general election."