ROBBINS, N.C. (AP) — The Rev. Mark Harris says he's the only one in the U.S. Senate Republican primary field that can unite the three streams of the GOP in North Carolina and ultimately put Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan on the political ropes heading to November.
"I wholeheartedly believe that I am the bridge candidate in this race," Harris told a small gathering listening to the Charlotte pastor at Acorn Ridge Baptist Church in Moore County one recent afternoon. "We're going to draw from the tea party. We're going to draw from the establishment — the business community. And we're going to draw from the evangelicals."
But it's clear the 25-year Southern Baptist minister from Charlotte won't reach any runoff in the eight-candidate May 6 primary, let alone win it outright, unless he gets to the polls enough like-minded people disturbed about the country's direction on gay marriage, abortion and what they consider Christianity's removal from the public square.
Political liberals are "trying to replace the foundation that this country was founded on, and that is the Bible," said Dwight Creech, principal of Calvary Christian School in Southern Pines and a Harris supporter.
Harris, who turns 48 in April, has a strong connection to this part of the electorate. The former Baptist State Convention president successfully energized social conservatives two years ago to approve an amendment to North Carolina's constitution affirming the state's ban on gay marriage.
"Christian conservatives have to get out of the pews," said Kevin Shinault, 56, of Pilot Mountain, one of more than 150 people attending a Harris rally and volunteer meeting in the parking lot of a north Raleigh hotel. Shinault is a social conservative and tea party member.
The evening's big draw, wasn't Harris, but the Duggars, whose cable reality TV show "19 Kids and Counting" and vocal commitment to faith make them heroes within the Christian conservative movement. Harris highlights the Duggars, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, also a Baptist minister, among his endorsements.
Seventeen of Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar's children joined their parents for the rally, with the kids entertaining the crowd with gospel singing and music. After women waited in line to get their Bibles autographed by Michelle Duggar, Harris got up and gave an abbreviated campaign pitch filled with references to Ronald Reagan, whom Harris said he volunteered for as a teenager in Winston-Salem.
"We have an opportunity — a window ever so slightly open but yet a window of opportunity — to step up to the plate in our generation and change the course of America back to where she needs to be going," he told supporters in Raleigh. "Do you believe that tonight?"
While attending Appalachian State University to prepare for law school and a life in public policy, Harris said he instead "answered God's call to ministry" and became a pastor. He rose through the ranks of Baptist ministry, serving as senior pastor at churches in Clemmons and Augusta, Ga., before going to First Baptist Church in Charlotte in 2005.
"I always said he was well beyond his years in wisdom and in spirit and in his relations, in being able to work with people," said the Rev. Richard Hicks, who helped hire Harris while in college as a youth minister at a Winston-Salem church.
It's in Charlotte where he got more involved in the conservative Family Research Council and became president of the Baptist convention, an association of 4,300 congregations. While president he became a key spokesman for Vote for Marriage NC, the organization that worked to approve the amendment on gay marriage in May 2012. Sixty-one percent of the voters supported it.
He began considering a U.S. Senate run in late 2012. A "Draft Harris" movement began last spring, and he announced his candidacy in September. He's now on unpaid leave from First Baptist.
As during the marriage amendment fight, Harris is meeting regularly with evangelical ministers to help them get the word on his campaign to their congregations.
The Rev. Robbie Gibson, senior pastor of East Sanford Baptist Church, said during the marriage debate Harris "was charismatic in his leadership, somebody that you would want to stand behind and follow." He said he intends to urge his church members to back Harris.
Harris said he's got business credentials because he's led churches with multimillion-dollar budgets He also said he'd prefer tea party favorite Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas to become the next majority leader should Republicans control the U.S. Senate.
Harris' chief rivals are Cary obstetrician Greg Brannon and House Speaker Thom Tillis of Cornelius. Michael Bitzer, a politics professor at Catawba College in Salisbury, said he would think Christian conservatives would be more engaged with Harris' campaign given that gay marriage laws in other states were being struck down by federal courts.
Harris really hadn't "gained the traction that's been available to him," Bitzer said.
Steven Carter of Burlington said he had wanted to back Harris last summer but suggests Harris may have waited too long to become a candidate. "I think he got in too late," said Carter, who now supports Brannon.
Harris said in an interview he's keeping to a disciplined and focused campaign strategy and will have the money to run commercials before the primary. The pastor also shown recently he's willing to throw verbal punches in the primary, particularly at Tillis for questionable activities and comments he's made while speaker that Harris' campaign describes as "character" issues.
Harris said: "If we don't put up a candidate that is that fresh face, is marked by integrity and character and consistency and courage, then I fear we aren't giving people the real motivation that they need to get to the polls and to make the change that needs to be made."
Mark Harris for U.S. Senate: http://www.markharrisforsenate.com/