DURHAM — North Carolina Republicans will choose a new party chairman Saturday in a race that has turned into a bitter brawl marked by personal accusations, a lawsuit and the sort of high-powered campaigns usually reserved for races for governor or the U.S. Senate.
One candidate has been accused of being gay, and another has acknowledged an extramarital affair.
Bill Knight, Orange County's party chairman, called it "the most foul and corrupt campaign in my 48 years in politics." Frank Rouse of Emerald Isle, a former state chairman, said the contest "just might be the dirtiest on record." Marcus Kindley, one of the candidates, says simply, "It stinks."
The tactics have overshadowed an important race. Republicans are attempting to regroup after one of their most difficult elections in decades in November, one in which they lost races for governor, U.S. Senate and president. The chairman helps hone the party's message, recruit candidates, raise money, organize campaigns and get voters to the polls.
But as Democrats are providing targets, from a record-setting state budget crisis to investigations into cronyism, North Carolina Republicans have been knifing themselves.
That led former Raleigh Mayor Tom Fetzer, one of four candidates for the post, to remind a GOP luncheon in Durham on Tuesday that their opponents are in the other party.
"Too many Republicans are interested in knocking Republicans over," he said.
The other candidates are Lee County Commissioner Chad Adams, former Guilford County GOP chairman Kindley and Bill Randall, a retired Navy veteran from Wake Forest. They are seeking to replace Linda Daves of Charlotte when an expected 1,500 to 2,000 delegates meet Saturday at the Raleigh Convention Center.
The state Republican Party has a history of bloodletting in chairmanship races dating to the early 1970s. But most of those fights have been based on ideology or factions.
There are few ideological differences in the current race. All the candidates call for a renewed emphasis on conservative principles, greater grass-roots campaign efforts, improved selling of the GOP message and stepped-up fundraising.
So the race has turned on the personalities and qualifications of the candidates.
"We've had some tough fights," said Carter Wrenn, a longtime GOP strategist for Sen. Jesse Helms and others. "But I've never seen anything like the invective in this. If you read what is on the Internet, it will curl your hair."
Some of the invective has involved sexual innuendo, most of which has been spread anonymously over the Internet.
Fetzer has been the subject of an Internet campaign alleging that he is gay. Fetzer has denied the rumor, saying it is being spread because he is 54 and never married.
Fetzer filed a lawsuit against a Wilmington radio talk show host, Curtis Wright, for forwarding an e-mail that included the allegation. The company that owns the station has denied libeling Fetzer, and Wright filed a motion in Wake Superior Court on Tuesday to have the suit dismissed.
"I am not gay -- never have been, never will be," Fetzer said in an e-mail to GOP delegates. "There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever to support any of the scurrilous allegations made in the anonymous attack on me."
Adams, meanwhile, has been the subject of an Internet campaign that includes salacious e-mails between Adams and a former girlfriend. Adams has sent an e-mail to Republican delegates addressing the issue.
"There has been a concerted circulation of vicious, lurid and exaggerated anonymous emails, blog posts and rumors in an attempt to force me out of the race," Adams wrote. "The truth is that several years ago (2007) I briefly strayed from my vows. I have accepted the responsibility of my indiscretion and have asked my wife and God for forgiveness."
All of the candidates have said they had nothing to do with the rumors being spread and have denounced them.
The candidates were civil Tuesday when they appeared at a forum hosted by the Durham County Republican Women at the Hope Valley Country Club. The mud has mainly been thrown anonymously by supporters.
Hard sell to delegates
Undecided GOP delegates, such as John Tarantino of Durham, have been heavily courted. He has received numerous automated telephone messages from prominent Republicans on behalf of Fetzer, as well as personal calls from Fetzer and Adams.
Tarantino said he received one recorded telephone message from the Fetzer campaign that criticized Adams.
"It was nasty," Tarantino said. "I didn't like it at all."
Fetzer, who has been a player in Tar Heel Republican politics for three decades, is the best known figure in the race. At one time, Fetzer was seen as a rising star in the GOP, possibly a future governor or senator.
He has compiled a lengthy list of endorsements from the likes of U.S. Reps. Sue Myrick and Patrick McHenry, former U.S. Rep. Bill Cobey, former U.S. Sen. Lauch Faircloth, former Gov. Jim Holshouser and I. Beverly Lake, former chief justice of the state Supreme Court.
Fetzer also is a friend and former college roommate of U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, who will head the GOP ticket next year. Burr is staying neutral in the party fracas.
Fetzer said he has the fundraising ability and communication skills needed to revive the Republican Party in North Carolina.
"The party's message has been confusing lately," Fetzer said. "The party needs to return to a clear, concise message. We need to differentiate ourselves from the Democratic Party."
Fetzer's campaign has included automated calls to the homes of prospective delegates, with messages from Cobey, McHenry and former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot. His campaign also produced an Internet ad criticizing Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue, an effort to show what he might do as chairman.
Fetzer's most visible competition has come from Adams, who is on leave from his job at the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank in Raleigh.
Like Fetzer, Adams is a gifted public speaker who can articulate conservative causes.
Adams has the backing of Art Pope, a Raleigh businessman and major Republican Party donor whose family name is on state GOP headquarters.
Adams and Fetzer have been campaigning full-time for months, traveling around the state to meet with many of the 5,200 potential delegates selected at county conventions. Adams has three paid staffers and Fetzer has one.
If Fetzer and Adams bloody each other, Kindley hopes to be in position to pick up votes.
Kindley, a Greensboro stockbroker and lay minister, offers himself as a candidate who is not tied to powerful insiders. He says he brings business experience to party headquarters.
"I see the elites in Raleigh holding on to power by choosing particular candidates to run," said Kindley. "I consider myself an outsider because I am not politically controlled by somebody wanting to have something."
Randall, a retired Navy meteorologist, is the least known of the candidates. The 52-year-old Wake Forest resident moved to North Carolina in October and became involved in John McCain's campaign.
He thinks his military background would provide him with the experience to lead the party. At the Tuesday lunch, Randall pulled out a list of objectives from the Communist Manifesto, and suggested the country was headed down that road under the Democrats.
Randall has the most innovative e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Given the tenor of the GOP chairmanship race, some might agree that it might not be a bad slogan.
email@example.com or 919-829-4532