CHARLOTTE, N.C. — U.S. Senate candidate Kay Hagan said she came to talk about issues, but it wasn't long after arriving at an early voting site in Charlotte that a few voters brought up what's become the focal point of the race - the "godless" ad that Sen. Elizabeth Dole is running against her.
"What a nasty campaign this has turned into at the last moment," Doug Gubbins, a retired computer programmer from Charlotte, said to Hagan as she worked the voting line at Marion Diehl Recreation Center.
As Carolina voters made their final decisions about who to vote for, the bare-knuckle contest between Dole, the Republican incumbent, and Hagan, a Democratic state senator from Greensboro, continued to brew both on the airwaves and on the ground.
Dole began airing a second ad featuring a fundraiser for Hagan in Boston, which was hosted by Democratic supporters. It was held at the home of a man associated with the Godless Americans PAC, a group that is opposed to references to God in government. The host, Woody Kaplan, has said his reception for Hagan had no connection to the Godless Americans.
In Dole's new ad, the announcer asks, "If Godless Americans threw a party in your honor, would you go?" Hagan declined to talk about the ad war with reporters in Charlotte, except to say she would continue to pursue legal action. On Thursday, she initiated a lawsuit that claimed Dole's ad was false and defamatory.
On Friday, Dole's Raleigh attorney Philip Isley responded by filing a motion to dismiss Hagan's suit, saying the lawsuit is "essentially a political press release that attempts to manufacture causes of action where none clearly exist." One N.C. media lawyer said he thinks a suit like Hagan's probably wouldn't be victorious.
"The courts have held that political speech is "core" First Amendment speech that is entitled to the highest degree of protection even when it is virulent, nasty and inflammatory," said Hugh Stevens, general counsel to the N.C. Press Association.
A church leader sent Sen. Elizabeth Dole a sharply-worded letter opposing her television ad.
"We are writing to deplore as strongly as possible your recent 30 second television advertisement," wrote the Rev. Sekinah Hamlin, president of the N.C. Council of Churches, a coalition of 15 Christian denominations that work on racial, gender and economic issues. One of the churches that support the council's work is First Presbyterian of Greensboro, where Hagan serves as a Sunday school teacher and elder.
"We cannot remain silent when you challenge the beliefs of faithful fellow Christians and suggest that a leader in one of the state's oldest and largest denominations doesn't believe in God," wrote Hamlin, an ordained Disciples of Christ minister.
Mixing religion with politics didn't sit well with some voters either.
"I'm glad you're out here because I did not appreciate that," Charlotte nurse Barbara Sherman said to Hagan about Dole's ad.
Later, Sherman said that her daughter had been subject to religious taunting because she is Jewish.
"That's the freedom of this country, to be able to believe in what you want to believe in," she said. Charlotte homemaker Leslie Hand said she was tuning out campaign ads because she knew the Republican Party shared her pro-life stance and other values.
"It's important to have people who will speak up for the values I believe in," said Hand, a Dole supporter. Sharon Seward of Charlotte, a children's ministry director, said she doesn't like negative campaigning on either side and the candidates ought to stick to the issues. But she said Dole's ad did raise questions for her about Hagan.
"We need to know where people stand, but I want it always to be the truth," she said. "I would like to know where she stands but I don't know." For one previously undecided voter, the Dole ad made the difference. Tom Carlin, a registered Republican and stay-at-home dad from Charlotte, said he'd decided to vote for Hagan after seeing it.
"The ad I saw showed a lot of desperation on her (Dole's) part," said Carlin, who has grown disenchanted with the direction that Republicans have brought the country in over the last eight years. "The separation of church and state is important to me. That was sort of a last-ditch effort to bring religion into it to try to galvanize that part of the electorate." Charlotte Observer staffer Jim Morrill and Raleigh News & Observer staffer Yonat Shimron contributed to this report.