Down in North Carolina, things are already heating up in the state's 2010 U.S. Senate contest. Republican Richard Burr, who won his first term in 2004 riding George W. Bush's coattails, is facing troubling poll numbers against potential Democratic contender Roy Cooper, the state's attorney general. He's also had a few unfortunate p.r. hiccups, namely telling a crowd in Winston-Salem recently that, when the financial sector tanked in the fall, he instructed his wife to make a run on their bank. "I was convinced ... that if you put a plastic card in an ATM machine the last thing you were going to get was cash," Burr said. But a more fundamental problem he faces is that lots of people think he's just plain boring. "Nobody dislikes Richard Burr," GOP strategist Carter Wrenn told the Raleigh News & Observer. "But no one likes him much either. ... Burr is like a sketch. ... Someone has to paint in these colors."

Ouch.

But Burr's pending nail-biter of a re-election isn't an anomaly. In fact, according to a University of Minnesota study posted this week, the scenario has become North Carolina's norm. Over the last two decades, the state has hosted the country's most competitive U.S. Senate races: While the national average for margins of victory is a whopping 22.8 points, in the Tar Heel state, it's a mere six. The biggest margins were Republican Elizabeth Dole's 8.6-point defeat of former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles in 2002, and then her subsequent 8.5-point loss to Kay Hagan this past November. (Interestingly, the No. 2 state in terms of competitiveness is Minnesota, which finally this week seems to have reached the conclusion of the nasty Franken vs. Coleman battle.)

I asked Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, why North Carolina's races are so tight. He listed several factors that have rendered the state "made-to-order for close elections." Most notably, the state is one in which "neither political party has an assured majority." About 46 percent of registered voters are Democrats, 32 percent are Republicans, and 23 percent are independent. And, since the 1970s, when North Carolina was still dominated by old-school Southern Democrats, voters of all affiliations have become increasingly moderate. "You've had immigration into the state... professionals, accountants, businesspeople who've swelled the suburbs, free-enterprise folks who vote Republican... but Democrats remained strong among environmentalists, teachers, black voters, some rural [voters], and city voters." Ultimately, Guillory explained, "people swing between moderate liberals and moderate conservatives and look for pragmatic candidates they can vote for."

In other words, Burr's best bet if he wants to beat Cooper or another strong challenger is to be sensible--to get behind policies that the public can see going into effect for their benefit. That means, no more anecdotes about frantic bank runs.

--Seyward Darby