Neal and Hagan seek spot against Dole
By Mike Baker
GREENSBORO ó Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jim Neal said recently he is the only party hopeful capable of beating Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole, dismissing his chief rival Kay Hagan as just another political insider.
Hagan, a state senator from Greensboro, has built a wide lead in both polling and fundraising with the support of Democratic leadership. But Neal said in the race’s only televised debate, one week before the North Carolina primary, that he can beat Dole because he offers something different.
“We have to offer a contrast,” Neal said. “Demo-crats win on contrast and standing firm on values. And that’s what I’m about.”
Hagan, meanwhile, said she believes any Democrat has a good chance of defeating Dole in the November election. But she vowed to be that candidate, contrasting herself with Dole on issues such as the minimum wage, financial aid for students and veterans benefits.
Neal repeatedly tried to engage Hagan during the hour-long debate moderated by students on the University of North Carolina at Greensboro’s Spartan TV. And while Hagan tried to focus her responses on Dole, she also contrasted herself with her Democratic competitors, including Lumber-ton attorney Marcus Williams and Moncure podiatrist Howard Staley.
Hagan, contrary to the other three candidates on stage, would not dismiss the possibility of drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as a way to soften soaring gas prices ó an idea often proposed by Republicans but rejected by congressional Democrats.
“I think that’s an issue of a cost-benefit ratio,” Hagan said. “You’ve got to look at how much oil is there, how long it will last and what is the risk from an environmental standpoint. I will really study the cost-benefit analysis.”
The veteran lawmaker said the more urgent priority was finding alternative sources of energy. She also advocated eliminating incentives for oil companies.
Neal, a Chapel Hill corporate financial adviser, immediately said he opposes drilling in Alaska, suggesting the nation should tap into the nation’s large strategic petroleum reserve first. President Bush favors continuing pumping oil into the reserve in case of an international disruption in oil markets.
“I don’t believe we can begin talking about plundering our natural environment in order to generate more oil on the marketplace,” said Neal, an entrepreneur.
Williams cited data indicating the oil in the wildlife refuge would take years to develop and do little to influence gas prices. Staley said drilling for oil and would only continue a cycle of President Bush’s energy policy, which he dubbed “Drill until you’re sick. Get all the oil out of the earth you can.”
“It’s only led to more consumption and more pollution,” Staley said.
Two Alaska Republicans introduced a measure last month to open drilling in the protected area in the northeastern part of their state should oil prices reach $125 a barrel for five straight days. And on Tuesday, Bush sought to blame Congress for high energy prices and renewed his call for drilling in the wildlife refuge.
The Energy Information Administration estimated in 2005 that it would take about a decade to begin pulling oil out of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The federal agency said by 2025 the oil from the refuge would only move gasoline prices by less than a penny a gallon in 2003 dollars.
Tuesday’s debate was only the second of the primary race, the first coming on radio last month. Neal accused Hagan of avoiding debates when she backed away from a proposed meeting hosted by WTVD-TV in Durham. Her campaign said at the time it would only accept a debate in which all five candidates were invited.
Duskin Lassiter, a Lexington trucker, did not participate in the UNC-Greensboro event.
Hagan has built her lead in statewide polls with a large television advertising buy and reported last week she still had more than $317,000 cash on hand in mid-April. Neal reported having just over $18,000 while the others have reported having no more than just a couple hundred dollars.
Dole has already banked about $3.2 million for her re-election bid and has a wide lead over her challenger.