WHEN SHE APPEARED on the Today show in January, Hillary Clinton outlined the parameters of the now-fabled "vast right-wing conspiracy." But she named only three actual conspirators, two of whom happened to be senators from North Carolina -- Jesse Helms and Lauch Faircloth. (The third was Jerry Falwell.) All three are indeed conservative, but it is Faircloth, a 70-year-old craggy-faced hog farmer from rural Sampson County, who has a reputation for being the most avidly right wing. Or did.

Faircloth is now in a surprisingly close race for reelection. He is being challenged by a telegenic, 45-year-old attorney from Raleigh named John Edwards, and though the senator's ideas don't appear to have changed -- deep down, say those who know him, he still makes Jesse Helms look like a liberal -- his message has. By this point, North Carolina voters probably know Faircloth best not for his anti-Clinton plots, but for his passionate support of breast-cancer victims.

"For most people, a stamp is a way to send a letter," begins a Faircloth ad that has run extensively on the female-oriented Lifetime television network. "For one man, it's a way to provide hope." The ad goes on to tout Faircloth's vote in favor of a special postage stamp whose sale funds "research that means hope for the one out of every nine women in this country afflicted with breast cancer." The purpose of the ad isn't subtle, and Faircloth's strategists aren't shy about spelling it out. "We're trying to show people, especially women, that Lauch Faircloth is not an unreasonable guy," says one. "It did a lot of good for us. Tons. It's been one of the most successful spots in the campaign."

Maybe so. On the other hand, there are probably more effective issues Faircloth could be running on, beginning with his opponent's career as a trial lawyer. It's axiomatic among Republican political consultants that beating up on lawyers resonates with voters. "Few classes of Americans are more reviled and you should tap into people's anger and frustration with practitioners of law," wrote GOP pollster Frank Luntz in a dispatch to Republican candidates last year. "They truly are one group in American society that you can attack with near impunity."

If ordinary attorneys make good political punching bags -- "Make fun of them mercilessly," advises Luntz -- then John Edwards is the ripest possible target. During the 1990s alone, according to Lawyers Weekly, he has won more than $ 152 million in jury verdicts, mostly in medical-malpractice cases. Edwards appears to make a specialty of suing obstetricians ("His colleagues claim he can read a fetal heart monitor better than many physicians," according to the Raleigh newspaper), and it's not hard to imagine an effective Faircloth as that links Edwards to the shortage of rural baby doctors, and otherwise characterizes him as an ambulance-chasing enemy of children's interests.

Such an ad probably exists in the minds of Faircloth's media consultants, but it has yet to be televised. "There are a lot of folks on the campaign," says a Faircloth adviser, "who think that if we hit him on being a trial lawyer, he brings in the little girl who got her intestines sucked out by the pool drain to show he's on the side of ordinary people. But he'll probably do that anyway. Every day we spend debating whether he's a good trial lawyer or a bad trial lawyer is a good day for us. It's like debating whether you're a good rapist or a bad rapist. Whatever happens, he's not a U.S. senator that day."

In interviews, Faircloth has criticized Edwards as a "rapacious," "fat cat" lawyer, but for the most part the race has remained oddly polite. Perhaps the most contentious issue to arise so far has been hog manure. Over the past decade, North Carolina has become the second-largest pork-producing state in the country, after Iowa. There are now more than 100 million hogs in North Carolina, about 14 per human resident. Each hog produces more bodily waste each day than four people combined, for a total of 10 million tons a year, much of which ends up in stunningly rank sewage "lagoons" that periodically leak into rivers and streams.

You don't have to be a wildeyed environmentalist to have concerns about hog farming in North Carolina, and many voters do. Faircloth, as it happens, is North Carolina's fifth-largest hog producer, with an estimated 300,000 hogs (estimated, because Faircloth doesn't like to discuss the details). Though his hog operations have rarely been cited for environmental violations, a number of conservation groups in the state have held press conferences and run ads to denounce Faircloth as a despoiler of nature. It's not clear what effect the negative publicity has had, though Faircloth staffers don't seem worried. "One of the benefits of the Clinton scandal," says one, "is that it takes a hell of a lot to shock people these days. It takes . . . hell, I don't know what it takes. You've probably got to get caught screwing a hog with a cigar to shock people in North Carolina."

Faircloth is doing his best not to shock anybody. The only member of the Senate without a college degree, he has cultivated an image as a plainspoken country boy ("My town is so rural," he often says, "even the Episcopalians handle snakes") with a Scottish dedication to frugality. And from all accounts, it's more than an image.

Despite his enormous net worth, Faircloth apparently resists spending money on just about everything, including plane tickets back to North Carolina. Instead, each weekend he drives five hours home in his Chevrolet Caprice. When he stops for the night, it is in the cheapest possible hotels. When his tires go bald, he has them retreaded. "When he buys pants," says his media consultant, Alex Castellanos, "and I think he gets them out of a catalog, he has them cut to size and he saves the cuffs. Then when he wears out the seat, he uses the material to patch them." The walls of Faircloth's office in Washington are almost completely bare. The senator says he doesn't decorate because his real home is in North Carolina. Privately, his staff suspect he doesn't want to buy pictures. And while his attempts at breast-cancer activism may ring false, Faircloth's campaign slogan, with its strains of Depression-era thrift, seems utterly fitting: "America's Most Practical Senator."

If there's one group that likes a practical senator, it's businessmen, and Faircloth appears to have their full support. A Faircloth fund-raiser held in Greensboro in late September drew business leaders from all over the state, including the heads of NationsBank and the Food Lion grocery chain. The campaign raised more than $ 500,000 in one night. After dinner, Faircloth rose to thank his supporters. He spoke briefly about the importance of business in America, then sat back down. The audience clapped politely.

Then Charlton Heston took the podium. After a summary of Faircloth's achievements in Washington, Heston got to the point. His voice modulating from a whisper to a yell, he spent the next 20 minutes reciting from memory the last three chapters of the Book of Deuteronomy. By the time he reached the description of Moses' final days -- "no man knoweth of his sepulcher unto this day" -- he appeared to be weeping.

It never became clear why Heston decided to launch into a dramatic reading of the Bible, or what exactly Moses had to do with Lauch Faircloth's bid for reelection. But the crowd didn't seem to care. They cheered wildly. Like the rest of Dixie, North Carolina is changing, becoming more modern, sophisticated, ripe for candidates like John Edwards. But it hasn't changed all that much. Voters still like to hear old-fashioned revival talk. And in Greensboro, it took a Yankee actor to provide it.

Tucker Carlson is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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