RALEIGH — As former Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory sat in an easy chair fielding questions at a women's luncheon Tuesday, one could forgive him if he thought he was sitting in the catbird's seat.
All the polls show him leading Democratic Gov. Bev. Perdue, his likely opponent next year. For the first time in 20 years, it appears there will be no major fight for the GOP nomination for governor. And the national party is sending in help - from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
McCrory was in such a good mood that he even introduced the state Democratic Party staffer who was videotaping him hoping for material that could be used later in a TV ad against him.
But despite McCrory's upbeat political prospects, his message was stern: It's belt-tightening time.
"We have to have leadership that understands that it's going to be tough economically and we don't have as much money as we used to," McCrory told 270 women at the North Raleigh Hilton. "Therefore, we are going to do more with less."
McCrory is not expected to announce his candidacy until early next year. But even though there are no McCrory for Governor signs, he has been running an all-but-announced campaign for months - holding fundraisers, giving speeches, and meeting with potential supporters several times a week.
When he isn't campaigning, he is working for the law firm of Moore & Van Allen, where he does policy development work on energy, development and land use. Between work and politics, McCrory said in the past week he had been in Rocky Mount, Tarboro, Wilson, Fayetteville and Raleigh.
It's a formula that has been working for him. While Perdue battles with high unemployment, a hostile legislature and occasionally a case of foot-in-the mouth disease, McCrory has been motoring along as the all-but-anointed GOP nominee.
The only bump in the road was last week, when several candidates he recorded phone messages for - Wake school board candidate Heather Losurdo and Charlotte mayoral candidate Scott Stone - lost.
"He's in pretty good shape," said Andy Taylor, a political scientist at N.C. State University. "It doesn't look he's going to get a (major) primary challenger."
If that is the case, he will be the first Republican nominee to go unchallenged since Lt. Gov. Jim Gardner in 1992. But then Tar Heel Republicans are desperate for a winner. They have the third longest losing streak in governor's races in the country, behind only Oregon and Washington.
McCrory came close last time, losing to Perdue in 2008 by a 50-47 percent margin - the closest governor's race in the country that year.
Tuesday's women's luncheon was the third this year for McCrory, all put together by Aldona Wos, a physician and former U.S. ambassador from Greensboro who was a major fundraiser for President George W. Bush and Sen. Elizabeth Dole among others.
He is trying to unseat North Carolina's first female governor, but several participants said gender would not be an issue in next year's race.
"The issue should be who would best lead the state, male or female," said Karen Armstrong of Greensboro.
Sara May of Raleigh, an independent, said although she was impressed with McCrory, she needed to know more about his stand on reproductive rights.
Balancing between the Republican conservative base and moderate independents is one of McCrory's challenges, said Taylor.
In his speech, McCrory virtually ignored Perdue, but in response to questions he took a few swipes.
He criticized a $30 million incentives offer the state made to try to land a Continental Tire plant in Southeastern North Carolina, which eventually went to South Carolina, saying the state was willing to give away too much.
He suggested that if North Carolina had policies of lower corporate and income taxes and less regulation like South Carolina, it would be able to attract such companies.
"I don't think we have a sound economic development policy in the state of North Carolina when you have to offer $30 million to a company to come to our state at the same time you have companies here who are barely keeping their heads above ground," McCrory said.
He also criticized the Perdue administration for not paying enough attention to mental health issues.
A spokesman for Perdue's campaign called McCrory's remarks "flat-out hypocritical."
"He says we need to cut taxes for businesses, but he and the Republican legislature opposed Gov. Perdue's proposal to cut the corporate income tax - because they wanted to make sure she didn't get credit for cutting business taxes," said Marc Farinella, Perdue's campaign spokesman.