RUTHERFORDTON, N.C. -- As he embarked on an RV tour of North Carolina to answer questions and reassure supporters, Sen. Richard Burr
-- back home from Washington -- is not taking any votes for granted.
On Saturday, at a stop at GOP headquarters in Rutherford County, the conservative faithful of 100 or so crammed into a front room, as focused as the incumbent is on the midterm elections. The day before, Burr delivered the keynote for the U.S. Green Building Council,
Charlotte Region Chapter. He shared the stage with an 18-year-old environmental activist, said nice things about Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ("quite a leader in this country") and ended with quotes from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the once controversial civil rights leader who has become the new hero of small government devotees.
Burr's speeches to the two groups, though different in tone, did share a folksy joke about Baptists and heaven and sweltering summer heat that will surely get a workout as that RV covers some ground.
If Burr was at all worried about keeping the passions and politics of diverse groups of North Carolinians in line, he didn't show it. Through it all, with a stop at the celebratory opening in Charlotte of the Mint Museum Uptown
, Burr was relaxed as only someone with an edge in the polls and nonstop TV ads can be. At last report, he held a 9-to-1 fundraising lead over his Democratic opponent, N.C. Secretary of State Elaine Marshall
, who has yet to release any television ads.
One Burr spot
in particularly heavy rotation features two gentlemen on a front porch, later joined by a woman representing a younger demographic, criticizing Marshall's
energy policy. The ad mimicked one from 2008 that damaged then-Republican incumbent Elizabeth Dole
; the gentlemen in the rocking chairs and the political winds have since shifted.
On the campaign trail, Burr barely mentions Marshall, whom he led by 58 percent to 34 percent in a SurveyUSA poll
conducted last month. The November elections are as much a referendum on President Obama; in a Rasmussen poll
, 55 percent of North Carolinians surveyed disapprove of the job Obama is doing (with 45 percent "strongly" disapproving) while 44 percent approve.
In Rutherfordton on Saturday, Burr and a lineup of GOP contenders for national and state offices had to compete with the sounds of the Ramblin Gypsies band and the smell of homemade fried pies at the Hilltop Fall Festival -- running the length of Main Street just outside the door -- as well as comments inside the room about Obama and the 2012 presidential contest.
"Don't get distracted with 2012 right now, this is all about 2010," Burr told the crowd. The country's in fiscal shape "that won't make it to 2012 if we don't make the changes."
Mike McCurry, a 70-year-old retired accountant, was sympathetic to Burr's message. "He tries to do a good job," McCurry said. "With the Democrats in control, it's hard to get legislation through," at least the kind of bills that would curb the "big government" McCurry is suspicious of.
Charlene Presbitero was more impatient. "What is the Republican Party in Washington going to do to stop this global government that is coming down the pike hard and fast?" she asked. "I have never been so afraid for my country as I am right now."
"Give us the opportunity to be in a position that matters," Burr answered, to "stop all the initiatives that are trying to change the fabric of this country and the foundation of this country."
In a room decorated with three posters of Abraham Lincoln, the tone was set by early remarks from David Larry Ford, chairman of the Rutherford County GOP. Because we're Republican, he said, "we put God and country first."
who is trying to unseat Blue Dog Democrat Heath Shuler
, representing North Carolina's 11th
District in Congress, reveled in his rise "from contender to 'young gun' " -- a designation conferred by the National Republican Congressional Committee.
After the rally -- on the day President Obama said in his weekly address that "the Republican leadership is promising to scrap all the incentives for clean energy projects" -- Burr told me his views on energy had been consistent in his Friday speech at the Green Building Council. (While there, he touted the fluorescent light bulbs "in every light in my house" and the necessity of looking into nuclear energy solutions to meet the nation's needs.)
"I thought I was pretty specific in the comments that I made that there are areas . . . of the environmental efforts that I don't embrace," Burr said as he rested briefly before the RV headed to Hendersonville. "Climate's one of them. I don't believe cap and trade is beneficial to the American economy long-term.
"If this is still America -- where people have the choice to do what they're going to do -- any choice in green is the choice of the American people."
Burr said he believed that as more conservation choices become available, more people will choose to become better stewards. He pointed to N.C. companies "that have taken advantage of federal tax credits and expanded on that with their own company tax credits for high-efficiency equipment."
(Marshall doesn't support cap and trade, said her campaign's communications director, Sam Swartz; he said she believes there are other ways to promote green jobs and wean the country off foreign oil.)
If you compare him to a GOP Senator to the South -- South Carolina's Jim DeMint, renowned as a Tea Party force and cruising to re-election against Democrat Alvin Greene -- Burr would definitely slide under the radar. He recently missed taking the top Republican seat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee when party leaders decided to keep Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska in the spot, despite her write-in election bid. But Burr has been burnishing his own conservative bona fides as a no vote on much of this president's agenda, as much as he was a reliable yes on the previous president's.
The Tea Party is "like the cavalry coming," Burr said. "But I don't look at the Tea Party in isolation. I look at Americans for Prosperity,
I look at all of the groups that maybe have different names but are concerned about the direction of the country." They "want to get the fiscal discipline back in Washington," he said of the well-funded groups putting a stamp on November contests. "That's consistent with what I believe."
"In Washington, D.C., he voted against stimulus, in North Carolina he comes to take credit for jobs he voted against," said Swartz of the Marshall campaign. "It's a place where Senator Burr is trying to have it both ways."
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has also chided Burr for political appearances at companies that have benefited from stimulus funds generated by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which he opposed in Congress. Recently he attended a jobs creation and expansion announcement at Cree Inc., a Durham, N.C.-based company that manufactures LED lighting and received nearly $40 million, as well as $39 million in federal tax credits under a stimulus program for green energy manufacturers, according to a report in the News & Observer
"The federal government should always be available to be a partner with private industry and with private organizations," Burr told me in response. "But I think that we've got to do that in a way that has the most benefit to the entire public and not one particular company and one particular region."
He said the Cree investment was for "a project that provides competitive manufacturing of LED lights," which, Burr noted, will reduce energy consumption. "It's not that I was opposed to spending anything." Burr said a plan he proposed with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) would spend half as much money and be more targeted. "The only way we get out of an economic downturn is if we bring clarity and predictability to taxation and to regulation so that private capital comes back into the marketplace," he said.
As Burr travels around the state, one of his only problems might be harnessing the anger that has many Republicans focused on the Oval Office. "I don't think that any American should be critical of an individual that's president," Burr said. "They need to be critical of the policies but not of the individual."
Tell that to Presbitero, who shook as she told me of her worry that Obama wants America to become a Third World country. She opposes all of his programs, and the man himself. Angry at what she called the "lies" in Obama's health care reform package, she said, "I could spit in his face." Presbitero's not too fond of McCain either, "a progressive," she called him. Though she liked what Burr had to say in Rutherfordton, Presbitero will be watching him with a critic's eye.
When I asked about the uncompromising fervor and criticism emanating from his energized base, Burr said, "With any movement you've got to accept the good and the bad." He allowed that even "my own wife sometimes is critical of things I say."
But somehow, I think he can always count on her vote.