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Cinderella Story, Out of Nowhere

GREENSBORO, N.C.--It’s 9 a.m., and Kay Hagan, her morning jog already a distant memory, breezes into a breakfast at the Democratic Women of North Carolina’s annual convention. Dressed in a sharp brown suit and pumps, the Democratic Senate candidate glad-hands quickly, finds her way to the stage, and, after a few introductory remarks from her fans, launches into her stump speech: increasing access to health care, improving education, adding new green energy jobs. About ten minutes later, and with the crowd sufficiently worked over, she steps away from the microphone and turns to the women sitting next to her. “I gotta go campaign!” she announces. Moments later, she’s gone--back in motion. “I sure could use a cup of coffee,” she tells her staff as she hurries out of the Marriott ballroom.

Once in the lobby, however, Hagan halts her swift move to the door when word comes that her opponent, Republican incumbent Elizabeth Dole, is in the building. Hagan eyes the stairs leading to the room Dole has just entered. She does a quick mental calculation: Is there time to stage a chance meeting? No, she decides; she has to hustle to her next appearance. Besides, Hagan says later during a ride in the back of her family’s van, which has been converted into a campaign-mobile with a few stickers, she’d rather meet Dole in a formal debate than in passing. “We’ve accepted three debates with Dole, and at least ten other [possible hosts] have been calling us,” says Hagan, a five-term state senator. Dole has yet to agree to any debates. “We finally told them, ‘When you talk to Dole, let us know and we’ll be there.’”

This kind of scrappiness has served Hagan well, and she’s now poised to pull off one of the biggest upsets of 2008. Three months ago, she was down double-digits in the polls, and analysts were sure that Dole, one of the most well-known senators in the country, would sweep to victory. Today, Hagan is up two points in one poll and five in another. Her rise has forced the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which Dole chaired in 2006, to spend more in North Carolina than in any other state this cycle.

By most accounts, Dole’s first term has been a disappointment. When she ran in 2002, she was a political celebrity, with a presidential bid and a stint in 1996 as a would-be First Lady behind her. But she “has spent her first term largely as a back-bencher,” according to a recent profile in the Raleigh News & Observer. In 2006, as head of the NRSC, Dole watched as the Democratic committee outraised her and the GOP lost six seats. “Nobody is saying she did a great job,” political analyst Stuart Rothenberg told The New York Times. “You would have to be in a coma not to realize that a $30 million fund-raising advantage for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) is astounding.” Dole has also faced criticism for poor constituent services and voting consistently with President Bush. Roll Call recently ranked her the 93rd most powerful senator.

Hagan and the DSCC saw Dole’s decline as an opening. The niece of former Florida governor Lawton Chiles, Hagan began her professional career with North Carolina National Bank (now Bank of America) in 1978, back when it wasn’t easy being a woman there. A secretary initially refused to work for her, and male colleagues asked if she had her husband’s permission to attend business lunches. Nonetheless, she became a vice president at the bank, a post she held until 1988. A decade later, after working as a self-proclaimed “soccer mom” and political organizer in her hometown of Greensboro, Hagan defeated a Republican male incumbent to take a state senate seat.

Hagan now believes that, given her professional background, she should be seen as the qualified woman capable of getting things done in Washington (a persona Dole has spent decades cultivating). And unlike Dole--and for that matter, many traditional Southern pols--she’s not genteel. “Dole kind of comes off as a cross between Southern sweet tea and the queen of England, and Kay is feisty,” said Gary Pearce, a Democratic strategist and campaign consultant from North Carolina. “Hagan has enough sweet tea in her, but not too much.”

“She can be intense,” added Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “And sometimes it takes intensity to get things done, but intensity also rubs people raw. … I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the other [state] senate leaders saw her as ‘not easily managed.’” Peers have also questioned Hagan’s hard-hitting style. State house representative Paul Luebke, a Democrat, said she only compromised on her legislative agenda when absolutely necessary. “She was pretty strong-willed about what she wanted,” he said. Democratic Congressman Brad Miller, who at one point considered running for Dole’s seat, recently said voters might not like Hagan’s constant attacks. “In the TV ads, this [attack strategy] may work,” Miller told Politico. But in a speech setting, “I don’t know if it works here.”

And yet, both on- and off-air, Hagan and her backers are pursuing their withering criticisms of Dole. At the Marriott breakfast, Hagan linked Dole to Bush and called her “Senator Nowhere in North Carolina.” (According to The Winston-Salem Journal, between 2004 and 2006, Dole spent only two months in the state; the moniker is also a reference to Jesse Helms’s nickname, “Senator No.”) Later in the morning, while touring a community health center in Durham, Hagan emphasized that, if elected, “You won’t have any trouble talking to me.” When one of the center’s directors noted that Dole meets with his organization every year, Hagan didn’t miss a beat. “You are the exception,” she said. And the DSCC, which is salivating at the chance to fill Helms’s old seat with a centrist candidate, has been funneling millions of dollars into TV ads, including one devastating spot that slams Dole’s record and age (she’s 72, while Hagan is 55).

Dole has lashed back, dubbing Hagan “Fibber Kay” in an ad that compares her to a yapping dog and reminds voters of the incumbent’s national clout--anything to imply that, unlike Dole, Hagan is no Southern lady. “Hagan would poke a puppy with a stick if it got her political points,” Dole spokesman Dan McLagan told the Associated Press in September.

There’s little indication the race will get any less combative over the next few weeks. According to Hagan’s campaign, Dole has a roughly two-to-one cash advantage, and analysts say that she is going to use it to attack Hagan and play up her edge in name recognition.

But the changing demographics of the state, not to mention national anti-Republican sentiment, are huge impediments. Hagan is beating Dole handily in both suburbs and urban areas, which have exploded in recent years because of business expansion and immigration. “When I started [in politics], there were 30 counties with half the vote. Now ten have half the vote,” said Gary Pearce, the Democratic strategist. Hagan is also up substantially among independent voters, who now comprise more than a fifth of the state’s voters, and is benefiting from the Obama campaign’s widespread grassroots efforts, which have helped Democrats out-register Republicans in North Carolina six-to-one this year. Hagan has also gained ground during the financial crisis; her numbers shot up in early October, and she’s been hammering Dole, who sits on the Senate banking committee, for not doing enough to prevent the collapse. Even Bill Kristol and other Republican poo-bahs are now writing Dole off.

And Hagan is giddy about her chances. After leaving the Marriott and hitting the road to her next stop, she paused abruptly while discussing her candidacy (and occasionally dictating driving directions) when another car honked in support of her campaign van. Hagan waved gleefully and patted her driver on the shoulder.

“Get used to that,” she told him.

Seyward Darby is a reporter-researcher for The New Republic.

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By Seyward Darby