⇒ See also:Western Wake’s House districts could turn blue” | Sen. Elizabeth Dole’s 2007 voting record

The message was clear as Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Kay Hagan campaigned in veterans halls last week with Max Cleland. Cleland, a triple amputee, Vietnam War veteran and former secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, lost his Georgia Senate seat in 2002 after Republicans attacked him for being insufficiently patriotic for the post 9/11 world. “It’s pretty obvious the other side will employ any method to win,” Cleland told a reporter Friday in Raleigh. “But there’s only so much they can do to hide the facts of the last eight years. What has really made me angry is to see another war, with no plan to win, and no plan to take care of the returning veterans.”

Still, Hagan is determined to establish her patriotic bona fides before they’re attacked: As state senator for 10 years, she backed additional appropriations for veterans programs in North Carolina; if elected to Congress, she plans to bolster federal veterans benefits and treatment for concussive brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. When the question of politics was raised in Raleigh, she answered indirectly by listing her many family members who’ve served in the military, including her father, her husband and her husband’s father, who was a Marine Corps general. “I want to do all that I can to honor and care for the veterans who have given service to our country,” Hagan said.

After Hagan’s afternoon town-hall meeting on the military at the state Veterans of Foreign Wars headquarters, Melvin Whitley was persuaded. A 26-year-old sergeant and Iraq veteran in the N.C. National Guard’s 1132nd Military Policy Company based in Rocky Mount, Whitley said his unit has sustained more casualties in Iraq than any Guard unit since World War II. “We saw car bombers, suicide bombers, on a day-to-day basis,” Whitley said. “[Hagan] really supports the troops. I can see it in her eyes. I’m gonna go with the same feeling in my gut about this vote that I used over there to decide which way to turn an d which street to go up in order to keep my men safe.”

The war fever of ’02 was as elevated in North Carolina as in Georgia, and it helped propel Republican Elizabeth Dole to an easy victory in the Senate race over former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles. Dole’s nine-point margin over Bowles, who’s since become the UNC system president, had most political folks convinced well into last year that she’d have clear sailing again in 2008. Instead, her unquestioning support for the war and the rest of the Bush agenda through most of her term started catching up with her. With less than two months to go until Election Day, she’s in a fight for her political life against Hagan in a race that polls show is tied.

Thus, Friday evening Sen. Dole and her husband, former Kansas senator and ’96 Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole, also pitched their patriotism to a crowd at the VFW hall in Cary.

Bob Dole is a World War II veteran with a withered arm to show for his service. Elizabeth Dole extolled his long record of advocacy for veterans programs and listed bills she’s supported in the Senate to improve them, including the recent extension of Family and Medical Leave Act rights to military families; parents and siblings are now entitled to care for an injured veteran up to six months without jeopardizing their jobs. “It’s our profound responsibility” to take care of our returning war veterans, she declared.

There are 800,000 veterans living in North Carolina, Elizabeth Dole said, plus 100,000 troops stationed here.

Sen. Dole was preceded on the stage by a number of retired military officers who urged veterans to back her over Hagan. John Turner, an Iraq veteran who is co-chair of Veterans for McCain, said “certain people in Congress [have decided] that they’d rather win an election than win a war.” In the face of that, Turner said, John McCain pushed to send additional troops to Iraqthe surgeand Dole was among the senators who stood with him: “I ask all veterans to stand by Sen. Dole.”

The clashing campaign events here marked a new ground phase in the Senate race after a months-long air war of mostly negative TV commercials, including millions of dollars worth financed by the various Democratic and Republican campaign committees in Washington, D.C.

Hagan, a 55-year-old state senator from Guilford County whose crisp manner is reminiscent of Dole in the ’80s, has sought to portray the incumbent as ineffective and, well, old. (She’s 72.) The archetype is the commercial, paid for by the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee (DSCC), with the two codgers in their rocking chairs wondering “whatever happened” to the Liddy Dole they used to know.

Dole was slow to fight back but is lately on the air with a yappy-dog ad about “Fibber Hagan” and another that attacks Hagan as a big-spending Democrat in the General Assembly. Meanwhile, Dole is trying to blunt the criticism that she’s ineffective by pointing to the 2004 federal buyout of tobacco quotas and the fact that recent military base cuts never nicked North Carolina, while Fort Bragg gained 9,000 jobs.

However the effectiveness debate comes out, the greatest significance of the Dole-Hagan race lies in the national Democrat-Republican struggle. If Hagan wins, hers could be the seat that finally turns the Senate blue.

The Senate turned a pale blue in the ’06 elections, with 50 Democrats out of 100 members, plus Democrat-turned-Independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. He still caucuses with the Democrats but was a featured speaker at the recent Republican National Convention.

But 51 senators isn’t always enough. Because of the Senate’s filibuster rules, most contentious legislation requires 60 votes to succeed.

Major bills in the current session that passed the Democratic-controlled House only to die in the filibuster-deadlocked Senate included measures to reduce troop levels in Iraq; a windfall profits tax on oil companies; greater funding for children’s health care programs in the states; and the Employee Free Choice Act to assist labor union organizing.

Thus the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee’s goal for ’08 is to wrest as many seats as it can from Republican incumbents, a task made easier by the fact that the list of senators considered vulnerable includes just one Democrat (Mary Landrieu of Louisiana) and 11 Republicans, including Dole.

On most political lists, Dole is in the middle of the “vulnerable Republicans” pack, not the most likely to fall, but not safe, either. Should she lose, it’s probable the Democrats will have won at least 56 seats, not the “gridlock-proof majority” that the DSCC wants, but within hailing distance of 60 votes, given that some Republican moderates, such as Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, have voted with the Democrats in the past.

Especially if Barack Obama wins the presidency, a Senate capable of breaking Republican filibusters will be critical to his ability to enact a progressive agenda.

As the Dole-Hagan race goes, it’s quite possible, so goes the nation.

Sen. Dole’s stature slumped precipitously on the eve of the ’06 elections, when as then-chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, she put in a disastrous performance on NBC’s Meet the Press. After defending the war and charging that the Democrats were “content with losing,” Dole refused to stop talking when host Tim Russert turned to his Democratic guests for a response, finally forcing Russert to shout “time out, time out, time out” after 45 seconds of her insistent arguing.

She looked worn-out and beaten, and two days later, when her party was beaten, Dole was widely blamed in GOP circles for failing to adequately fundraise and recruit strong candidates. In North Carolina, meanwhile, Democrats were blasting her as an absentee senator who spent too much of her time trying to elect Republicans in other states.

Through the first nine months of 2007, Dole was a loyal foot soldier in the Bush administration’s army. Her voting record was strongly pro-business and anti-labor. She backed the Bush line against environmental and energy-conservation measures, health and education funding, civil rights and tax reform. To this day, Dole is a staunch supporter of the Bush tax cuts for wealthy Americans and proposes to cut corporate taxes further and eliminate estate taxes entirely. (Republicans call it “the death tax.”) For her voting record, the National Rifle Association and the Gun Owners of America have given her perfect scores.

But last September, Dole sounded a tentative note that maybe the war wasn’t going well in Iraq, and called for “action-forcing measures”including withdrawing or reassigning troopsto prod the Shiite-controlled government toward reconciliation with other groups.

Since then, she’s slightly distanced herself from Bush. According to The Hill, a Washington newspaper that tracks Congress, Dole voted with a majority of the Democrats, and against her party’s majority, 25 percent of the time in the first half of 2008; by contrast, she voted with the Dems just 6.6 percent of the time last year, 6.4 percent in the 2005-06 term, and 4.3 percent in 2003-04.

Her breaks with the GOP line included supporting the economic-stimulus bill, helping to override a Bush veto that extended the children’s health program to more low-income pregnant women, and voting for a bill extending the time between deployments for troops sent to Iraq. Dole told The Hill she was “[doing] what’s best for the people of my state,” not changing course to get re-elected.

Dole also broke with Bush over immigration reform, taking a hard line against the president’s (and, early on, John McCain’s) attempt at a comprehensive, bipartisan solution. All year, she’s been meeting back home with sheriffs active in the 287(g) program, aimed at deporting illegal immigrants arrested for any reason, including working under a false identity.

A brittle campaigner, Dole doesn’t like to mix it up with voters or reporters, so she leaves the small-stage stumping to Bob. But Bob Dole’s help may be a mixed blessing. At 85, Dole’s age could underscore the opposition’s jabs at Elizabeth’s lack of zip. And the fact that Dole is from Kansas may remind voters that he’s never lived in North Carolina; nor has Elizabeth put roots down here since she graduated from Duke Law School and went to work in Washington more than 40 years ago. Her voting address is the Salisbury house she grew up in, which was her mother’s home until she died four years ago.

(It serves to tee up Hagan’s favorite campaign device, the “ruby red slippers” she wants Dole to wear on her way home to Kansas. Red slippers are prominently featured on Hagan’s campaign Web site.)

As for Hagan, in the state Senate, she’s been aligned with conservative Democrats who control the General Assembly, notably Senate President Marc Basnight. She’s been his chief budget-writer for the last five years. The results: More funding for schools and conservation, more tax breaks for businesses, and regressive tax increases including a higher sales tax and the lottery, which she supported.

As Charlie Cook, the highly regarded analyst and author of the Cook Political Report, said last week at Elon University, this election is “not about Hagan.” It’s about Dole and, to a lesser extent, about the Republican performance since 2001. “When your party is going through a really tough year, the economy is bad, your president has a low approval rating,” Cook said, “it’s obviously a very, very competitive race.”