Published June 27, 2024

By Carter Wrenn

Debates can turn a campaign on its head.

My book, The Trail of the Serpent, is going to be published in August. I tell stories about politics from Reagan’s campaign against President Gerald Ford through Trump and Biden. One story is about Jesse Helms’ first debate with Jim Hunt in 1984.

In Jesse’s campaign we took our first poll two years before the election and got a shock: Jesse trailed Hunt by 24 points.

A year and a half later, Jesse trailed Hunt by 5 points. I thought, If we can catch Hunt by the end of this month this is a horse-race we win.Jesse had more money than Hunt, we’d outspend him by millions – so a horse race worked.

I spent every penny we had – over a million dollars – on one ad about Hunt. A month later, at the end of June, Jesse led by two points. Here’s the story about the first Helms-Hunt debate:

Harrison Hickman had grown up in a small town near Raleigh listening to Jesse’s editorials on WRAL – Gary asked him to work with Hunt to get him ready for the debates.

Hunt read, studied relentlessly, read more, mimicking Jesse at a trial debate Harrison humbled Hunt; jaw-set Hunt went back to work.

Jesse brushed me off when I told him to do a mock debate.

“That’s a waste of time – I debate every day in the Senate.”

“This isn’t a courtly Senate debate – this is a knife fight.”

The night he debated Hunt the first time Jesse ambled down the sidewalk toward the TV studio – a reporter holding a pad stepped in front of him stopped him dead in his tracks.

“What’d you do to prepare for the debate?”

Jesse grinned. “I got a haircut.”

I stood in a cavernous studio beside Tom Ellis, stared at TV cameras, padded walls, the debate table, laid eyes on Jim Hunt for the first time – after watching videos of Hunt for a year and reading Bob Harris’ research reports I had a fixed image of Jim Hunt in my mind: A weak, wimpy politician with no backbone.

Short, slender, back to me, Hunt rose onto the balls of his feet – I thought surprised, He looks like a tennis player. Half-turning Hunt locked eyes on Jesse, his lips set, the image in my mind shattered – the words echoed in my ears, You’ve made a mistake.

Affable, nodding to reporters, Jesse strolled up onto the stage, sat down across the table from Hunt, the room darkened, spotlights lit the stage, cameras rolled, staring straight at Jesse in a matter-of-fact voice Hunt said Jesse supported death squads in El Salvador.

The camera cut to Jesse. Staring down, rambling, he read his opening statement, at the end voice slowing, somber, pointing to his blue necktie he smiled: “Thomas Jefferson is my hero…I’m wearing a Thomas Jefferson necktie tonight.”

Beside me Tom Ellis let out a stifled moan.

The moderator read the first question – Bob Harris had written – slamming Hunt for flip-flopping on school prayer. Hunt’s eyes lasered on Jesse, lips set he leaned forward.

“I have always believed in school prayer. I have not changed my position on that or any other issue.”

Lifting his eyebrows Jesse frowned puzzled.

“Well…that’s an interesting development.”

I’d sent him that question a week before the debate along with Bob’s report proving Hunt’s flip-flop – he’d laid the report aside. All he had to do to pin Hunt was lay one fact on the table. But he didn’t know the facts. Staring down at a piece of paper reading out loud – like he was back at WRAL giving an editorial – Jesse said that Hunt had flip-flopped four times on cutting the deficit – Hunt shot back:

“I’m glad you asked that.”

Eyes unwavering Hunt told Jesse he hadn’t changed his position on the deficit even once – his plan cut the deficit eighty billion dollars. Staring at the camera Hunt smiled.

“I’m Governor. I’ve balanced eight budgets.”

Not knowing the facts Jesse couldn’t lay a glove on Hunt.

Hunt slammed Jesse for millionaire donors paying for his foreign trips – avoiding Hunt’s eyes Jesse smiled at the moderator.

“The Governor doesn’t have his facts straight.”

Hunt slammed Jesse for his vote to increase the tobacco tax.

A vacant look stole over Jesse’s face. He shrugged. “If you lose me as a chairman of the Senate Agricultural Committee…the tobacco program can be kissed goodbye.”

Hunt ripped Jesse for voting to double the cigarette tax.

Rambling Jesse said he’d voted for a one-hundred and ninety-eight page tax bill, that only one line in that bill was about the cigarette tax – he turned sanctimonious.

“I had to take one for my country, Governor.”

 “That bill was defeated, the cigarette tax was defeated until late at night when you switched your vote…Jesse, you turned your back on tobacco farmers.”

“Governor, you got your facts twisted.”

Hunt slammed Jesse for voting against Social Security.

Jesse shuffled papers, looked up, grinned he’d helped forty-three thousand people get their Social Security checks – Hunt shot back: “When you were at WRAL you called Social Security disguised welfare.”

Jesse shook his head. “That’s an outrageous statement.” Poked Hunt. “You visited communist China which killed forty, fifty million of its own people.”

Hunt’s voice turned mocking.

“Is that the same regime Ronald Reagan visited?”

When the debate ended without speaking a word Jesse made a beeline to the door. Left.

Leaning forward in his chair, elbows on his knees, Tom Ellis muttered.

“It doesn’t get much worse than that.”

Voters had expected to see a strong unbending Jesse, instead saw a weak fumbling Jesse and a strong unflinching Hunt. The roof fell in. Arthur polled. Jesse plummeted.

We’d ended June two points ahead of Hunt. When the smoke cleared after the first debate Jesse trailed Hunt by 8. A million dollars went up in smoke. One debate upended Jesse.

We’ll see what happens tonight – when Trump and Biden debate.