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Voter Turnout Considered Light as Polls Near Closing

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RALEIGH — May 7, 1996, 5:08 p.m. EDT

It seems not too many people thought the issues at stake in today's primary election were worth going out in the drizzle for. Turnout was even lower than feared earlier in the day.

Two key races are the Republican contest for governor, with the victor facing incumbent Jim Hunt in the fall, and the Democratic U.S. senatorial contest, where the winner will try to topple Jesse Helms.

Political observers often feel weather influences turn-out.

State elections officials use another method, however. They find the number of absentee ballots requested to be a somewhat more accurate predictor. According to Gary Bartlett, director of the state Board of Elections, fewer ballots have been sought than in the past. Barlett calculates that the primary turnout will be lower than the state's usual of 35 to 42 percent.

``Some county officials are predicting turnout in the low 20s (percent),'' said Gary Bartlett, executive director of the state Board of Elections. ``I would have to say the interest is not what it should be.''

Despite candidates' attempts to whip up voter excitement, the campaigns have not generated widespread interest. Still, knowing that election day brings a firm and final end to all handshaking, commercials, speeches and polling, candidates and their staffs work feverishly right down to the wire. It was no different this year, with candidates shaking every last hand they could find, and some conducting last-day statewide visits to major airports for quick media exposure.

Republicans are choosing a nominee to challenge Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt (above, left). Former Charlotte Mayor Vinroot (above, center) and state Rep. Robin Hayes (above, right) are the chief contenders to take on Hunt in the fall.

Hayes told supporters at a drug store grill in Raleigh on Monday that every vote would be important.

``We've got a slight lead,'' Hayes told a crowd of boosters who chanted ``Robin! Robin! Robin!'' as customers munched on sandwiches. ``We'll take the slight lead we've got, but don't blow it. Get everybody out tomorrow.''

In Charlotte, Vinroot kicked off a state tour Monday with two former Republican governors.

Vinroot displayed his support from the GOP establishment by appearing with Republican former Govs. Jim Holshouser and Jim Martin.

``It goes without saying that my friend Jim Martin and I know what it takes for a Republican to be elected governor in North Carolina, '' said Holshouser. ``Richard Vinroot has what it takes to be elected.''

Holshouser was the first Republican governor in North Carolina this century when he was elected in 1972. Martin served two terms beginning in 1984.

Democrats are picking a challenger for their chief nemesis, U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms (above, left). Harvey Gantt (above, center), another former Charlotte mayor who narrowly lost to Helms in 1990, is facing former Glaxo chief executive Charlie Sanders (above, right).

Gantt visited each table of lunch patrons at a restaurant Monday, strolled into a barber shop and chatted with potential voters seated on shaded park benches outside the courthouse.

``I need luck. But I need votes,'' Gantt said.

Sanders stood before the Wake County Courthouse Monday in a tightly organized appearance with about 50 supporters.

``Tomorrow, we take the first step in making 1996 the last year for Jesse Helms,'' Sanders said.

Across the state, a number of voters will also be choosing nominees to the U.S. House. Crowded congressional races include the 3rd, 7th and 9th Districts.

In the 3rd Congressional District, which includes much of the coastal region, three Democrats - Sheppard Neal Moore, a scientist; George S. Parrott, a businessman and Gary E. Trawick, a lawyer - are seeking a chance to unseat incumbent Republican Rep. Walter Jones Jr.

Democrats and Republicans in the 7th Congressional District will be choosing from crowded fields of candidates seeking to replace retiring 12-term Congressman Charlie Rose.

The Democrats seeking the nomination are lawyers Mike McIntyre, Tim Dunn and Marcus Williams, educator Rose Marie Lowry-Townsend, consultants George Breece and Glenn Jernigan and retired businessman Howard Greenebaum. Republicans in the race are retired Army officer Robert Anderson, lawyer Jim Cooper, businessman Bill Caster and former congressional aide Robert Wilkie.

In the 9th District, which includes parts of Mecklenberg, Gaston and Cleveland counties, Democrats Joseph Lyles, a lawyer; William Jackson Jr., a Davidson College professor and Michael Daisley, also a lawyer; are seeking their party's nomination to challenge incumbent Republican Rep. Sue Myrick.

Other contested statewide races include the lieutenant governor's race, where Republicans Joe Hege and Steve Arnold are vying to face incumbent Democrat Dennis Wicker.

Four candidates, two Republicans and two Democrats, are also running for state schools superintendent.

In the Democratic primary, Mike Ward, a school administrator, is facing David Diamont, a teacher, football coach and former state House member. In the Republican primary, Vernon Robinson, a former college professor, is facing Bill Sharpe, a retired principal.

Bill Culp Jr., elections supervisor in Mecklenburg County, said Vinroot and Gantt could be hurt by low turnout there.

``We're expecting less than our two statewide candidates for public office would like,'' Culp said.

Culp said he thought people are not excited about the election because the presidential nominees have been decided and because of a continuing decline in party loyalty

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