RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) _ Aides to Sen. Jesse Helms said Wednesday that the incumbent's victory showed that he represents North Carolina's conservative values.

For his part, defeated Democrat Harvey Gantt said he may have underestimated the impact race would have in the election.

''I think that it just shows ... that the people in this state are traditional conservatives and that Sen. Helms represents their traditional family values,'' said Helms' spokeswoman Beth Burrus. ''I think with the strong voter turnout, you can definitely say that the people in this state want Sen. Helms representing them.

''It was a classic campaign between a conservative and a liberal. The turnout (which topped 60 percent) gave you a true picture of what North Carolina wanted.''

Gantt, who's black and a former Charlotte mayor, said he knew that race would be a factor but did not realize it would be such a key factor.

''We have always factored in the fact that race would probably play a role in this election ... we obviously may have miscalculated on how much it would play a role,'' Gantt said at a news conference in Charlotte.

He said he had pledged not to raise race as an issue. ''And we didn't. Sen. Helms did,'' he said.

State Republican Party Chairman Jack Hawke said late polls and the late adjournment of Congress that gave Helms only eight days of full-time campaigning helped fire up the Helms forces.

''All we heard out in our areas was that Helms couldn't be beat,'' Hawke said. ''People would want to know why we were so worried because Helms was going to win.

''But then there was that late poll that showed Helms behind by 8 percent, and all of a sudden people were calling us asking what they could do,'' Hawke said. ''And just about the time people were starting to get interested, Helms came back from Washington and got our people stirred up.''

State Democratic Party Chairman Lawrence Davis said the Gantt campaign, despite the loss, had helped pull together factions within the party.

''I think we're more unified today than we've been in a long while,'' Davis said. ''People are disappointed, to be sure, but you don't have the bickering we had after 1988 when groups were pointing fingers at each other.''

Gantt's 48 percent share of the vote was the same as former Gov. Jim Hunt, who lost to Helms in 1984. On Tuesday, Helms garnered 1,080,208 votes to 974,701 for Gantt.

In the end, Hawke said, voters saw the Senate race in conservative and liberal terms.

''I think if Gantt had been a little more of a moderate, Helms would have been in real trouble,'' Hawke said. ''But the choice was between two people who were at opposite ends of the spectrum.''