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Elizabeth Dole's
Senate Challenger Comes Out

Elizabeth Dole's
Senate Challenger Comes Out

The sole Democratic challenger for Elizabeth Dole's U.S. Senate seat in North Carolina came out over the weekend in an online forum.

Jim Neal, the head of a Chapel Hill, N.C., corporate financial advisory firm, announced October 4 that he would seek the Democratic nomination, but he did not mention his sexual orientation at that time. Neal, 50, was previously married and has two sons.

On the progressive political blog, Neal responded to a participant who said he heard that Neal is gay.

"I am indeed," Neal answered. "No secret and no big deal to me -- I wouldn't be running if I didn't think otherwise."

If successful in his bid to unseat first-term senator Elizabeth Dole, Neal would be the first openly gay person in the U.S. Senate, though he would not be the only out officeholder from North Carolina. Lesbian state senator Julia Boseman was elected to the general assembly in 2004.

Democratic insiders contend that Dole is vulnerable, due to her unwavering support of President Bush's policies and a poor showing by Republicans when she led the National Republican Senatorial Committee in the 2006 elections. On gay issues, Dole is consistently conservative: She has supported a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage and has expressed opposition to ENDA, the federal bill to extend workplace protections to gays and lesbians. A Elon University poll recently put Dole's job approval rating at 50%.

Unlike Dole, Neal appeared to affirm support for same-sex marriage, framing it as an issue of discrimination.

"It's OK if churches want to unite same-sex couples," he said in the online conference. "It's OK if they don't. That's their constitutional right, which I support 100%. But when it comes to the government, I'm not in favor of any laws that discriminate against anyone for any reason."

Despite Dole's vulnerability, prominent North Carolina Democrats have declined to challenge her. Gov. Mike Easley, Atty. Gen. Roy Cooper, and U.S. representative Brad Miller have all declined to throw their hats in the ring.

Neal asserted his confidence that a gay man could win in the South. "I'm not running this race to lose. I'm not running to make some social statement," he said in the forum. "I'm running to lead in the Senate for the voters in North Carolina -- something Senator Dole has not done. When people meet me, they'll see beyond the labels and into my character."

Neal's success may depend on whether the Republicans intend to make his sexuality an issue, says Pam Spaulding, a North Carolina resident and editor of the political LGBT-oriented blog Pam's House Blend.

"The rural areas of this state are quite conservative, and a negative campaign based on his sexuality will play well there," she told "The urban areas are more progressive and are likely to vote on the issues. It also depends on what kind of support he receives from the Democratic Party."

The North Carolina Democratic Party, for its part, will not say how much it expects Neal's sexual orientation to become a campaign issue, but it has stated there is a potential for other candidates to get into the race.

"We are an open and inclusive party. We welcome candidates from diverse backgrounds," state party spokeswoman Kerra Bolton told on Monday. "We trust voters to make informed decisions based on Elizabeth Dole's record of failing North Carolina."

Though Neal has never held elected office, he worked as national fund-raiser for Erskine Bowles's 2004 Senate campaign and full-time fundraiser for the presidential campaigns of retired Army general Wesley Clark and U.S. senator John Kerry in 2004.

In response to one forum participant's warning that the right wing would be after him, Neal replied, "I'm a big boy. I can take it and I can dish it." (Larry Buhl,

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