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Flip Flop and Fly

US Senate race makes heads spin

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Richard Burr, the Republican, is the one who bears a striking resemblance to former Vice President Dan Quayle. Even Quayle's wife, Marilyn Quayle, says so. His opponent, Erskine Bowles, is the spitting image of the puppet "Beaker" from the Muppets.

Their looks are about the only thing that's consistent about the two men who desperately want to be the next US Senator from North Carolina. That and the fact that they'll say just about anything to convince everyone from tobacco farmers to unemployed textile workers that they've had their best interests at heart all along.

Bowles, an investment banker from Charlotte, spent a whopping $7 million of his own money in a run two years ago for the Senate against Elizabeth Dole, who beat him by nine points. Burr, a five-term Congressman from Winston-Salem, is topping the Congressional fundraising charts trying to bury Bowles. It's one of the most competitive races in the country, and one of less than 10 that will likely determine which party controls the US Senate. As Bowles' lead narrowed from 10 points this spring to a dead-even race today, putting a win in sight for both, the garbage they've been throwing at each other has gotten downright loony -- if you know their records. They're clearly hoping voters don't.

Take job outsourcing for instance. Both Burr and Bowles have bashed free-trade agreements that paved the way for the exodus of American manufacturing jobs overseas. Each blames the other for this phenomenon.

Since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) took effect in 1994, the state has lost more than 90,000 textile jobs. As Bill Clinton's chief of staff, Bowles helped negotiate NAFTA, fast-track authority for trade agreements and favored trade status for China, which Bowles said he was "proud of" back when he wasn't running for office. Bowles now opposes these types of trade agreements.

The state Republican Party and Burr have, of course, blasted Bowles for this -- without mentioning that last year Burr voted for similar agreements with Chile and Singapore. Or that Burr voted for fast-track legislation in 1998, and said in 1994 that had he been in Congress when NAFTA passed, he'd have voted for it. Now he says he's against it.

Amid all of this, the Small Business Survival Committee, a group that supports free trade with China, has run ads for Burr, while Bowles (the former Chinese trade advocate extraordinaire) is running around the state calling China our biggest problem because the flow of imported Chinese goods is robbing North Carolinians of their jobs.

Confused yet? You should be.

Then there's the one they pulled on the tobacco farmers. For weeks the two have been falling all over themselves to take credit for the tobacco buyout legislation passed by Congress, which will put nearly $4 billion in the hands of NC tobacco farmers.

Back in May, though, Burr was only mildly jacked up about the bill, saying it wasn't a priority for the President and shouldn't be. Perhaps that's because R.J. Reynolds, one of Burr's top four campaign contributors, wasn't too jacked up about it either, since the buyout would be funded with corporate tobacco funds. Two weeks later, when Bowles started howling about the poor tobacco farmers and state papers started writing about it, Burr bashed Bush for his opposition to the buyout. Bowles and Burr now claim that they were the one who was instrumental in getting it passed.

Of course, back in 1998, it was Bowles and the Clinton administration that waged an all out assault on the tobacco industry -- and ultimately the farmers who made their living from it -- in the courts and through tobacco control legislation that would significantly raise the cost of cigarettes. But hey, that was then, and this is now.

With these two, the list of contradictions is endless. As Clinton's chief of staff, Bowles helped ram through the second largest tax increase in our nation's history. He is now painting himself as an anti-tax fiscal conservative who supports the Bush tax cuts.

When Burr ran for Congress in 1992, he pledged to eliminate PAC contributions from special interests located outside the district. This year, the Center for Responsive Politics ranked Burr as the top recipient of PAC money in the entire House of Representatives -- with the majority of that money coming from Washington interests outside the district.

Bowles paints himself as military friendly guy, never mind that he and Clinton presided over a period of cuts to the military. Now he's pledging to spend more on the armed forces. Likewise, Burr's website drones on about how he has been "actively involved in examining all aspects of terrorist attacks, including the vulnerability of America's infrastructure and counter-terrorism, preparedness and response capabilities" as a member of the House Select Committee on Intelligence's Task Force on Terrorism. The site neglects to mention that he voted against the creation of the 9/11 Commission to study the causes of the World Trade Center attack.

Both men are also casting themselves as moderates and claim to be independent voices. Bowles supports the war in Iraq, just as John Edwards did when he was still interested in being North Carolina's senator, likely because to do otherwise wouldn't play well in this state. Bowles says he doesn't blame Bush for going to war based on the intelligence he had and that Saddam Hussein was trying to obtain weapons of mass destruction.

But most of Bowles' other stances are identical to the platforms John Kerry and other national Democrats who are running on, so it's likely he'll vote with his party most of the time if he's elected.

Ditto for Burr, whose stances echo the President's most of the time. He has a lifetime rating of 92 percent by the American Conservative Union, a 100 percent rating by National Right to Life on pro-life issues and the endorsement of the National Rifle Association.

Best of luck to voters who are trying to sort this one out.

Contact Tara Servatius at tara.servatius@cln.com

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