RALEIGH — Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton announced Thursday that he would seek the Democratic nomination for governor, as the party scrambled to fill the vacuum left by incumbent Bev Perdue's thunderbolt announcement.
But as Dalton sought to quickly stake out ground as the front-runner in the Democratic primary, other challengers began floating their names as potential candidates within hours of Perdue's announcement.
Among them were former Congressman Bob Etheridge of Lillington, state Rep. William Faison of Orange County, Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, Congressman Mike McIntyre of Lumberton, and former state Treasurer Richard Moore of Raleigh.
The candidates moved with speed because Perdue's announcement gave them little time to either make a decision or to prepare for a campaign. Candidate filing for the May 8 primary elections starts in three weeks. By contrast, former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, the likely GOP candidate who is set to announce his candidacy Tuesday in Greensboro, has been laying the groundwork for his campaign for two years and has raised millions.
The question is whether Perdue's announcement enhanced or diminished Democratic chances of holding on to the governor's mansion - the third longest streak in the nation after the states of Oregon and Washington.
McCrory has a double-digit lead in the polls over Perdue, who is chief executive of a state plagued by high unemployment and whose 2008 campaign was marred by a finance scandal.
Although Democrats heaped public praise on her Thursday, many privately saw her as a drag on the ticket in November.
"Given where things were two days ago, I think (the Democrats) are better off in the sense of holding on to the governor's mansion," said Michael Munger, a political science professor who ran against Perdue as a Libertarian candidate in 2008. "I don't think they had any chance with Gov. Perdue."
But The Cook Political Report, a national political newsletter, took the opposite view, moving the North Carolina governor's race from the "toss up" category to "leans Republican" after Perdue's announcement.
Public Policy Polling, a Democratic leaning firm in Raleigh, found in a survey taken in October that McCrory leads all potential Democrats. McCrory tops Dalton by a 46 percent to 32 percent, and Faison by a 45 percent to 30 percent, the poll showed.
The only person who is close to matching the GOP front runner is former UNC system President Erskine Bowles, who ties McCrory in the poll. A number of Democrats have courted Bowles in recent months.
Several Democrats immediately took their names out of the running, including Attorney General Roy Cooper, former Gov. Jim Hunt, and state Treasurer Janet Cowell.
But other Democrats see 2012 as an opportunity: an open seat, accompanied by a major push by President Barack Obama's organization in the North Carolina to turn out the state's Democratic vote in November.
Dalton, 62, a small-town lawyer from Rutherfordton, moved quickly to pre-empt other candidates.
"I believe that our future economy and better jobs depend on our historic commitment to education," Dalton said in a statement. "After all, education is in North Carolina's DNA - it's what sets us apart, and it's what will determine our future.
"Pat McCrory and the Republican leadership are facing the wrong way by cutting teachers, reducing scholarships and abandoning economic development," Dalton continued. "They are doing lasting damage to our state."
Dalton had $592,000 in his campaign kitty at the end of the year. He raised an estimated $150,000 at a fundraiser Wednesday night at the Cary home of prominent software executive Jim Goodnight.
Faison has been running an informal campaign against Perdue for months, predicting that she would not be a candidate. Faison said Thursday he would make an announcement in coming days.
Moore said he will take "a close look" at seeking the Democratic nomination for governor.
"I am not ruling anything out," Moore said. "The Democratic Party faces a real challenge to find the right candidate who can bring together a strong challenge to Republicans this fall. I know how to present our arguments in a forceful and experienced way. We will have to see if I am the right messenger at this point in time."
Moore, who lost to Perdue in the 2008 Democratic primary, is a former state legislator and former crime control secretary.
Foxx, who won re-election as mayor in the fall, said he remained focused on Charlotte, but will have conversations in the coming weeks about his future. "I am always open to considering broader opportunities to serve, including the possibility of governor," he said. Charlotte is hosting the Democratic National Convention in September.
McIntyre, whose 7th congressional district was made more Republican by the legislature, said he was open to running for governor.
Etheridge also was looking at the race, according to a spokesman.
Charlotte Observer staff writer Jim Morrill contributed to this report.