Democratic gubernatorial candidates' hopes ride on three nights of debate

Three debates in three days will bring three Democrats into focus

rchristensen@newsobserver.comApril 16, 2012 

  • Monday night: 7 p.m. WRAL and WRAL.com, available statewide on UNC-TV. CBS anchors David Crabtree and Debra Morgan will moderate.

    Tuesday night: 8 p.m. UNC-TV and the statewide public television network. Moderated by Kelly McCullen, UNC-TV’s senior correspondent.

    Wednesday night: 8 p.m. NBC-17 and NBC.com, offered to TV stations across the state. Co-sponsored by the N.C. League of Women Voters. Moderated by NBC-17 TV reporter Kim Genardo.

— For three consecutive nights this week, the major Democratic candidates for governor will debate each other on television in what could be a pivotal moment in the race to become North Carolina’s next chief executive.

The debates are seen as particularly critical this year, because with just three weeks until the May 8 primary, the governor’s race has so far attracted little attention, created little buzz and produced few political commercials.

Polls suggest there is still a large swath of Democratic voters who have yet to decide between former Congressman Bob Etheridge, Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, state Rep. Bill Faison and several little known candidates.

As a result, the debates could serve as an introduction to the candidates for many voters.

“They could be the most significant events in the race, particularly with the scarcity of TV ads” said veteran Democratic consultant Gary Pearce of Raleigh.

“This could be one of those cases, sort of like in the Republican presidential race, where people see more of the candidates in this setting than in any other way,” Pearce said.

The consecutive debates are also unusual, occurring in the run-up to the early voting period which begins Thursday.

Monday’s debate will broadcast on WRAL in Raleigh at 7 p.m. and aired on UNC-TV network across the state. On Tuesday at 8 p.m. UNC-TV will air its own debate on its network, and on Wednesday WNCN/NBC-17 in Raleigh, in cooperation with the N.C. League of Voters, will air a debate at 8 p.m. NBC-17 is also making its debate available to stations across the state.

Statewide, televised debates

While the candidates have appeared together in forums, these will be the first and only debates televised statewide. So far, the Democrats have done little to differentiate themselves from each other, generally directing their criticism at the Republican-controlled state legislature or at former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, likely to easily capture the GOP nomination for governor on May 8 against only token opposition.

In one of the few disagreements, Faison opposes a method of natural gas exploration using horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing known as fracking, while Etheridge and Dalton have said they support it with certain reservations.

Dalton has criticized Etheridge’s vote in Congress in 2003 in favor of a trade agreement with Chile and Singapore that was backed by the Bush administration but opposed by many House Democrats.

But the disagreements have been muted by the candidates’ difficulty in raising money in a short time frame. The three did not enter the race until after Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue’s surprise announcement that she would not seek a second term.

Dalton is expected to begin the first major advertising campaign Tuesday.

A survey taken in late March found that 45 percent of Democratic voters were undecided. Etheridge led with 26 percent, followed by Dalton with 15 percent and Faison with 2 percent, according to a poll by Public Policy Polling, a Raleigh firm with Democratic leanings. The survey of 505 likely Democratic voters was conducted March 23-25 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3 percent.

Pearce said the Democratic candidates need to come across as engaging, likable and comfortable in their own skin.

“I’d be telling them, this is your chance to make your case of why you would be a good governor,” Pearce said. “No. 1, don’t screw up. No. 2, have a message and a reason for running.”

A chance to make their mark

Pearce said the candidates need to differentiate or distinguish themselves on the issues.

Because the Republicans are likely to be in control of the legislature next year, Pearce said this will be the first time that Democratic candidates are faced with the question of how they would deal with a legislature controlled by the opposition party. They need to explain how they are the candidate best suited to protect education against Republican legislative cuts – which is how a Democratic gubernatorial candidate will want to frame the race, Pearce said.

But he said Democratic viewers will also be looking at the candidates for intangibles.

“We like to get down in the weeds of the policy proposals,” Pearce said. “But (CBS correspondent) Jeff Greenfield has this great thing about debates. He calls it the Bugs Bunny rule. He says Bugs Bunny always beats Daffy Duck. That the candidate who wins the debate is always the candidate who looks the most comfortable. It’s sort of like Ronald Reagan. It’s who looks most in command. Who looks most gubernatorial, the most capable.’’

Christensen: 919-829-4532

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