Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bob Etheridge's campaign got off to a bumpy start Monday, when he sought to clarify his positions on two of the most difficult issues of the governor's race - raising the sales tax and a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages and civil unions.
Etheridge, the former congressman, skirted both issues Friday, his first day as a candidate, declining to take a stance at a news conference.
But on Monday, Etheridge said he would support Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue's proposal to restore a 3/4-cent sales tax to fund education that the legislature repealed last year.
He also said that while he opposed gay marriages, he would not support the constitutional amendment on the May primary ballot, saying the state law banning same-sex marriages was sufficient.
"I didn't handle it as well as I should have," Etheridge said of his earlier explanation of his position on gay marriage.
The move by Etheridge was awkward, especially for a seasoned political veteran. But in both instances, it quickly moved Etheridge more into the mainstream of the Democratic primary field that also includes Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton and state Rep. Bill Faison of Orange County.
Other Democratic candidates were also weighing possible entry into the race.
U.S. Rep. Brad Miller of Raleigh, who said he would make a decision over the weekend, made no announcement Monday. Neither did former state Treasurer Richard Moore, who ran for governor in 2008.
Etheridge, who had represented the culturally conservative congressional 2nd district in Eastern North Carolina for 14 years, twice voted for a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages in 2004 and 2006. But the politics on the issue has shifted, and polls suggest the amendment has significant support among Democratic primary voters.
A statewide survey by Public Policy Polling conducted last month found Democrats favor the amendment by a 46-44 percent margin, with the margin of error plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. Even Republican Renee Ellmers, who defeated Etheridge in 2010, voiced opposition to the amendment, saying it was too broadly worded.
Last week, Etheridge said it was up to the voters to decide the issue. But he called reporters Monday to say he was opposed to the amendment.
"We actually have a statute on the books that says a marriage is between a man and a woman, which I agree with that," Etheridge said.
"There is no need to have a constitutional amendment that is broader than what we have and is not something I can support," Etheridge said. "It's too much. It's not good for our state. We've already heard from our business community. It also impacts cities and towns that are already providing benefits (for same-sex couples)."
At his news conference last week, Etheridge criticized the Republican legislature for repealing the 3/4-cent sales tax but did not say whether he backed the governor's idea to re-impose it.
But that put Etheridge in an awkward position. The central plank in his campaign is improving education, but he was declining to support a tax hike, unlike his two primary opponents.
In an interview Monday, Etheridge he hadn't "followed through as I should have."
"I do support the 3/4-cent sales tax," Etheridge said. "That was temporary to begin with. It should not have been done away with. You need to put it back on to fund education. We've had huge teacher cuts, and university and community colleges. There is about $270 million in federal money in these schools that is going away this year. That is why this money is needed."