By Rob Christensen
Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton captured the Democratic primary for governor Tuesday, setting up a general election race with former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory that will feature two baby boomers regarded as moderates by their own parties.
Dalton, a small-town lawyer from Rutherford County, defeated one of the party's veteran war horses, former U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge. With 93 counties reporting, Dalton was leading Etheridge 46 percent to 38 percent, with state Rep. Bill Faison of Orange County with less than 6 percent.
He did so after moving quickly to pick up the pieces of the Democratic organization, particularly its donor base, when Gov. Bev Perdue surprised the party in January when she announced that would not seek re-election. This gave Dalton the edge in money he needed to get his message across to voters in a three-month sprint of a primary.
McCrory breezed to victory over token opposition, winning 84 percent, based on early returns. It was the first time since 1992 that a Tar Heel Republican won the GOP nomination without a serious primary fight.
Appearing before supporters at the BlackFinn restaurant in Uptown Charlotte, McCrory said it was time for a new breed in Raleigh. North Carolina has had 20 years of Democratic governors -- the third-longest Democratic streak in the country after Oregon and Washington.
"We have a choice," McCrory said. "You can accept a leader who may be my opponent, who has been part of the good ol' boy and yes, good ol' girl, system for the past decade or two, who have supported policies and a culture that is unacceptable and one of the reasons North Carolina is in this mess.
"We are going to clean up North Carolina government."
But he also said there were hard times in the state -- the fourth-highest unemployment rate in the country -- and called for new polices from state government.
"This is not the North Carolina I grew up in ," McCrory said. "I want North Carolina to become No. 1 again -- No. 1 in quality of life, No. 1 in employment, No.1 in education -- that is going to be our goal."
Call from Romney
McCrory said he had received a congratulatory call from former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee.
Dalton framed the election as a choice between the progressive policies that produced the Research Triangle Park, the state community college system and a first-rate university system, and a Republican philosophy more interested in budget-cutting and laying off teachers.
"Because of Pat McCrory and the Republican leadership in the General Assembly, North Carolina has lost its vision," Dalton said in a victory speech at the Royal Bakery Building in west Raleigh. "Our future has been damaged, and our vision has been damaged.''
"The choice is very clear," Dalton said. "Are we going to be bold and move North Carolina forward, or are we going to stagnate and let others pass us by?''
A rare Republican favorite
This is the first time in modern North Carolina history that a Republican -- based on numerous polls -- starts the race as the front runner. The two previous GOP governors of the past 100 years, Jim Martin and Jim Holshouser, both started their general election campaigns behind.
Polls suggest that McCrory is far better known than any Democrat, having served as mayor of North Carolina's largest city for more than a decade, and then having lost a close race to Perdue in 2008 by a 50 percent to 47 percent margin in a very good Democratic year.
Help from national party
He also starts with a $3 million campaign kitty, and will likely receive a major infusion of cash from the national party, which has already indicated it will target the race by sending in a parade of national figures to help him raise money.
"Clearly McCrory is in a stronger position than probably any Republican since Jim Martin in 1988," said Gary Pearce, a veteran Democratic strategist, referring to Martin's re-election campaign. "He is well-funded. He has been running a long time. And he fits the Holshouser-Martin (centrist) mold for Republicans."
McCrory is likely to try to link Dalton to Democratic scandals in Raleigh -- although none involve Dalton -- and to a weak economy that has given North Carolina one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.
"It's not going to be an easy race," said Jack Hawke, McCrory's chief strategist. "It's going to be very competitive because of the nature of North Carolina politics. We are not overwhelmingly Democratic or Republican. We are a truly swing state. On the state level this will be a good cycle for us. The Democratic Party is not in good shape and is having trouble getting its act together and does not have the heir apparent, a well-known candidate sitting in a position of strength as they usually are."
"Pat starts with a base of support that none of the Democrats do," Hawke said.
But Dalton also has some advantages -- some momentum from a competitive primary, an edge in Democratic voter registration, and what is expected to be a massive turn-out effort lead by the campaign of President Barack Obama.
"Clearly there is a path to victory," said Pearce. "Democrats have won the last five governor's races in a row. There has been a basic formula that works. That fits Walter Dalton. It's a blend of moderate and progressive and focus on education and the economy."
Pearce said that Dalton has signaled that he will try to tie McCrory to unpopular budget cuts made by the Republican legislature -- something it will be difficult for McCrory to separate himself from.
"If Dalton can make this election a referendum on budget cuts in the schools, he will be in a strong position," Pearce said. "That is clearly where he is headed in his message. He has distilled the traditional Democratic message to six words: great jobs grow from great schools."
The end for Etheridge?
For Etheridge this may have been the last hurrah for a remarkable political career that saw the son of a tenant farmer rise to the courthouse, to the legislature, the state school superintendent and finally to Congress. But a political comeback was not in the cards, in part, because he was not able to raise enough money to get his pro education message to the voters.
In conceding the race at his campaign headquarters, Etheridge endorsed Dalton and said he was proud that his campaign "rejected the negative politics that too often poisons public discourse.''