When Erskine Bowles left the presidency of the University of North Carolina last year, he ruled out a future in elective politics.
"I have empirical data that I was a terrible politician," he said, referring to his two unsuccessful runs for U.S. Senate.
But despite Bowles' self-assessment, Democrats launched a major lobbying effort to get him to run for governor after Gov. Bev Perdue said last week she would not run for re-election.
Bowles, say friends and associates, is seriously weighing a gubernatorial bid, but is said to be genuinely undecided. Bowles has not returned inquiries from reporters.
Until Bowles makes a decision, he has essentially frozen the field of potential Democratic candidates beyond the two who have already announced their candidacies: Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton and state Rep. Bill Faison of Orange County.
The reason Bowles, 66, a Charlotte investment banker, casts such a shadow is self-evident.
"Nobody has the depth and level of experience that Erskine has had in public and private sectors," said Gary Pearce, a veteran Democratic strategist who advised Bowles in his 2004 Senate campaign. "Just go through his résumé. He is a successful businessman. He ran the Small Business Administration. He was White House chief of staff. He was president of the University of North Carolina. He was co-chairman of the federal budget commission. And by the way, he is the guy who balanced the last budget that the federal government had. Who can beat that résumé?"
Among the Democrats urging Bowles to get into the race is former Lt. Gov. Bob Jordan of Montgomery County, who was the Democratic nominee for governor in 1988.
Bowles' father, the late Hargrove "Skipper" Bowles, talked Jordan into getting into politics. And the younger Bowles served as Jordan's campaign finance chairman.
"What I am going to say is not real easy because Walter Dalton is a friend and I participated in a fundraiser for him last week," Jordan said. "But of all the people in the United States, who is best equipped to come in (to be governor)? I know of no one who would be better than Erskine."
A new statewide poll released Monday by Public Policy Polling, found that Bowles would be "by far the strongest Democratic candidate" against former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, who will formally announce his bid for the GOP nomination today.
Despite his résumé, Bowles has not been a successful politician. He lost to Republican Richard Burr in by a 52-47 percent margin in 2004 and to Republican Elizabeth Dole by a 54-45 percent margin in 2002. Both losses occurred during strong Republican years nationally, and in both cases he faced top-flight GOP opposition.
In 2002, Bowles was hurt by a delayed Senate primary that was not held until Sept. 10 because of litigation over redistricting. Dole ads tied Bowles to President Bill Clinton and also criticized Bowles' wife, Crandall, CEO of Springs Industries, for laying off workers in North Carolina.
Two years later, Burr ran ads tying Bowles to Clinton's policies on tax increases, welfare for immigrants and trade. One Burr ad said Bowles "doesn't have the courage to stand up for traditional marriage."
In both races, Bowles was a successful fund raiser, raising $13.3 million for each.
Bowles put $6.5 million of his own money into the 2002 race. Bowles' ability to raise money is another reason why Democrats are recruiting him, because Perdue's announcement gives them only a short-time to raise money before the May 8th primary.
But the fact that Bowles is a wealthy investment banker may give some Democrats pause. Some of the chatter in the liberal blogosphere in recent days has been whether the Democrats really want a gubernatorial nominee with a profile similar to that of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
While Bowles has always been at home in the boardroom and the Oval Office, there has always been a question about how well he can connect at the factory gate.
"He is not comfortable as a candidate," Pearce said. "It's just not his nature. That is a big drawback for him. I'd be willing to predict he won't run because of that.
"He was never comfortable running negative ads. He was never comfortable with the oversimplifications that you have to do in politics. He is a very brainy, studious person and that doesn't lend itself to the Twitter world."
Bowles has long had an interest in the governor's seat that goes back his days as a young man, when he worked on the campaign of his father - the Democratic nominee for governor in 1972 lost to Republican Jim Holshouser. Some friends see a campaign by the son 40 years later as a closing of the circle.
The 2000 election
Bowles seriously thought about running for governor in 2000, while he was finishing up his tour as White House chief of staff. Instead, he backed off as Attorney General Mike Easley and Lt. Gov. Dennis Wicker battled it out in the Democratic primary.
There are several things that Bowles would find appealing this time around, friends say: helping fix the state's budget, getting the economy back on track, and protecting UNC from damaging cuts.
Working with a Republican legislature would be nothing new for Bowles. He negotiated the last balanced federal budget in 1997 with House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
But there other things he doesn't like about it, friends say. In recent years, Bowles has moved away from partisan politics. A governor's race would throw him back into the partisan spin cycle.
Bowles is also said to be happy spending time with his grandchildren and being back in the private sector.
Bowles must decide whether he wants to spend his late sixties on private pursuits or to become the state's chief executive during a time of financial crisis and divided government. Friends say, it is a coin flip.