RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - It has been nearly four years since the death of Sen. Jesse Helms, but two Republicans vying to replace a retiring Democrat in North Carolina's newly redrawn 13th Congressional District hope the departed conservative icon still has political coattails.
Wake County commissioners chairman Paul Coble, 58, is Helms' nephew, and his campaign website prominently displays a video featuring an endorsement from the senator's widow.
"Never a week passes that somebody doesn't tell me that they miss Jesse in Congress and that they wish he was there," says Dot Helms, 92. "And I tell them that if they want Jesse Helms or somebody like him in Congress they'll vote for my nephew Paul Coble, who is just like Jesse."
Former U.S. Attorney George Holding twice worked for Helms, including a stint on Capitol Hill as an advisor to the senator on tax policy and agriculture. He counts Helms as a major political influence on his life.
"The best lesson I learned from him is that he stuck to his principles through thick and thin," said Holding, 43. "He won respect from even people who disagreed with him, because they knew exactly where he stood."
Both Raleigh natives, Coble and Holding have used their long-standing GOP connections to raise substantial campaign war chests. Much of that money has gone for ads questioning one another's honesty and conservative credentials.
A former television commentator, Helms wasn't shy about airing negative ads attacking Democratic opponents. But the third GOP candidate in the May 8 primary, Bill Randall, suggested the late senator wouldn't approve of how his former acolytes have been savaging fellow Republicans.
"He would be ashamed of their conduct," said Randall, 55. "I think (these attacks are) something that Sen. Helms wouldn't resort to. He would be sticking to the issues, making the case for why he is the best choice for the elected office. That's what I'm striving to do."
Republicans see the 13th district as a prime opportunity to extend their majority in the U.S. House.
Democratic Rep. Brad Miller, who has held the seat since its creation in 2003, chose not to seek reelection after the GOP-controlled state legislature drastically redrew his district. Miller's Raleigh home is about 50 yards outside the new lines, double bunking him with another Democratic incumbent in the neighboring 4th .
The 13th previously stretched from Raleigh to the north and west, reaching into Greensboro. The realigned district still includes parts of the state capital, but stretches instead to the east, extending all the way to Rocky Mount. The new territory includes more conservative voters, swinging the district from one that went overwhelmingly for Democrat Barack Obama in 2008 to one where Republican John McCain would have carried 54 percent of the presidential vote.
Running in the Democratic primary is the Rev. Bernard A. Holliday, a 79-year-old Baptist minister from Creedmoor who previously mounted four unsuccessful bids for the state legislature.
Holliday spoke out last year against partisan gerrymandering of the 13th . He said this week that his candidacy is intended as an act of protest against the GOP-authored redistricting and he reported no funds raised as of Dec. 31, but that he intends to win.
If elected, he would likely be decades older than other incoming House freshmen. Asked about his age, Holliday pointed to the example of Republican Rep. Howard Coble, who is 81 and campaigning for reelection in the neighboring 6th .
Charles Malone, a state employee from Raleigh, will also be on the Democratic primary ballot, even though he has dropped out of the race.
"Due to health issues and on the recommendation of my doctors, I have ceased being an active candidate," Malone said this week.
Malone said if he were to get the most votes in the primary, he'd leave it to the Democratic Party to appoint a replacement candidate for the general election.
All three of the Republican candidates support the core policy positions that have become their party's orthodoxy -- shrinking the size of the federal government, cutting taxes, eliminating regulations, ending abortion and repealing health care reform. As a result, they have largely focused on their political experience and voting records in attempts to differentiate themselves from the pack.
Coble served six years on the Raleigh City Council before being elected mayor in 1999. He served one two-year term before narrowly losing a reelection bid. After mounting an unsuccessful campaign for state Senate, he was elected as a Wake County commissioner in 2006 and has chaired the board for the last two years.
Coble said his long experience in local government would allow him to serve voters well in Washington.
"I'm the only guy in the race that has actually cut taxes, who's actually balanced budgets without raising taxes, who's actually had to eliminate programs and make those types of hard decisions," he said. "It's the difference between talking about doing something and actually
having done it."
While he has not previously been elected to office, Holding does have a record of government service. After working on Helms' Washington staff for two years, he became an assistant U.S. Attorney in Raleigh in 2002. Four years later, President George W. Bush appointed Holding as the top federal prosecutor for the Eastern District of North Carolina.
In that job, Holding oversaw several high-profile investigations, including a probe of Democratic Gov. Mike Easley that eventually helped contribute to a felony guilty plea in state court.
Though U.S. Attorneys generally resign when a new president of the opposite party takes office, Holding stayed on under Obama to oversee a continuing investigation of former U.S. Sen. John Edwards. Holding stepped down in the summer of 2011, days after Edwards was indicted on six criminal counts related to campaign finance issues.
Holding comes from a wealthy family that controls First Citizens Bank in Raleigh and some of his relatives have made six-figure contributions to the American Foundations Committee, a political action committee formed to support his candidacy. Federal law now allows donors to make unlimited contributions to the PAC, while they are limited to $2,500 each when giving directly to Holding's campaign.
American Foundations raised $514,250 from Feb. 21 through March 31, according to a draft of the report the group plans to file with the Federal Election Commission and obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press. The document lists $231,050 in expenses during the time period, most of which was for purchasing advertising time and ad production.
Holding said Wednesday his campaign has raised another $535,000 in traditional donations.
Updated campaign finance reports aren't due until April 15, but both Coble and Randall said the figures released by Holding will dwarf their hauls. Coble raised about $134,000 in the last six months of 2011 and had $67,000 on hand as of Dec. 31, according to FEC records, while Randall had raised $8,000 and had $2,900 on hand.
Election laws prevent Holding's campaign and the PAC from coordinating campaign activities. Coble questioned whether that rule is being followed and accused Holding of hypocrisy after saying months ago his campaign wouldn't accept money from PACs.
Holding said he wasn't doing anything wrong.
"This is the new reality of how campaigns work," he said. "Paul came out and said it's stinky, smelly, special interest, secret money. You know, they disclosed who the donors are and who's there? My uncle, my aunt, cousins, a brother and a handful of family friends."
A non-commissioned officer who retired from the U.S. Navy after 27 years of service, Randall won a runoff in the 2010 GOP primary but lost by a wide margin to Miller in the general election. Aligned with the tea party movement, he intends to use his grassroots support among party activists to offset the fundraising advantages of his 2012 opponents.
Randall said voters should remember he fought for the seat before redistricting, when it was an uphill fight for a Republican.
"I'm not someone who comes around just when I need a vote," he said. "I've been involved at the grassroots level, getting the conservative message out to voters. Now that the district has been redrawn, you've got other candidates coming in. But you can't accuse me of being an opportunist."
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