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Political Candidates Make Last-Minute Push For Votes

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RALEIGH, N.C. — As the election season winds down, candidates are making their final push for votes.

Both parties held unity rallies in Raleigh while candidates for



U.S. Senate

tried to win over undecideds and boost turnout.

GOP Senate hopeful Richard Burr, running neck-and-neck with Democrat Erskine Bowles in the last public polls, said it was now all in the voters' hands.

"We can all go to bed tonight knowing we've done all we can," Burr said at a campaign rally in Buncombe County with GOP gubernatorial hopeful Patrick Ballantine and other western candidates. "It's now up to the voters to make their choices."

While it was the only major public appearance for Burr - he and his wife planned to drive through the west making unscheduled stops to meet voters -- Bowles put his campaign in overdrive, beginning at dawn in Wilmington and heading to a nighttime appearance in Asheville.

In between, hundreds of Democrats cheered as Bowles and other statewide Democratic candidates -- including Gov. Mike Easley -- participated in a traditional noontime rally on the Fayetteville Street Mall.

Bowles, his voice raspy from nonstop campaigning over the last eight days, said he would push through Election Day to try to hold for the Democratic party the seat being vacated by vice presidential nominee John Edwards.

Polls shows Bowles leading Burr for most of this year, but Burr closed that gap about six weeks ago.

"Don't sleep. I promise you I'm not going to sleep," Bowles yelled to the crowd, which held placards for Bowles and a host of Democratic candidates. "We're going to work from dawn to dusk. And we're going to win."

Former Gov. Jim Hunt, a mentor to Bowles and a supporter of his unsuccessful 2002 Senate bid against Elizabeth Dole, stood by Bowles' side again Monday.

"Erskine Bowles is the best candidate we've ever had run," said Hunt, who lost his own Senate bid in 1984 to Jesse Helms in what was then one of the most expensive Senate campaigns ever run.

The Bowles-Burr race will exceed more than $20 million in spending by both candiates, with millions more spent by third-party groups.

Bowles also got encouragement from Easley.

"We are the ticket, the ticket with a record of accomplishment, one of achievement, one of a record of heeding the challenges. And we're going to do it tomorrow," Easley said to cheers. "We'll take North Carolina forward."

It was a rare appearance with other high-profile Democrats by Easley, who has been criticized by some within his own party for failing to campaign with national candidates Edwards and John Kerry when they stopped in North Carolina.

The theme of succeeding in tough times has been central to Easley's re-election campaign, and has given the incumbent an edge over Ballantine in fundraising and in the polls.

While a jobs announcement in Rockingham County was Easley's only other public appearance Monday, Ballantine flew around the state at a series of rallies, asking voters to help him pull off an upset.

"I believe this is our year," Ballantine said during his appearance with Burr at the Asheville airport in Fletcher. "If you remember, 1984 was the year everyone was saying Ronald Reagan was washed up. Then in 1994, the Newt Gingrich revolution brought in leaders like Richard Burr into Congress.

"Now, 2004 is our year," he added.

Besides electing a governor, a new senator and deciding the state's 15 electoral votes for president -- polls showed President Bush with a healthy lead -- the state's voters will choose candidates for Council of State offices, all 170 seats in the Legislature, the courts and county commissions. They'll also vote on bond issues and three proposed constitutional amendments.

Beginning Oct. 14 and ending Saturday, more than 1 million people voted early, either in person or through mail-in absentee ballots.

State elections board executive director Gary Bartlett said 983,903 people -- or nearly 18 percent of all registered voters -- cast early ballots in person during the early voting period. At least another 88,000 people voted by mail.

Mail-in ballots had to be at county board offices by the close of business Monday. Overseas military ballots had to be at offices by the time polls closed Tuesday evening.

Bartlett predicted that from 65 to 68 percent of the 5.5 million registered voters in North Carolina would vote at 2,800 statewide precincts by the time polls close at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. Sixty-eight percent is the modern record turnout in North Carolina, in the 1984 Hunt-Helms election.

In 2000, 60 percent of voters cast ballots.

Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life at UNC-Chapel Hill, noted that long lines for early voting "equate to a lot of people for too few machines" -- not necessarily high overall turnout for the election.

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