Dalton takes big lead in primary battle

rchristensen@newsobserver.comApril 30, 2012 

— A week before the election, Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton appears to have taken command of the Democratic primary for governor, overwhelming his opponents with a well-funded TV advertising campaign.

After months of little movement in the race, Dalton has surged in the past five weeks from 15 percent in the polls to 36 percent, putting him within striking distance of the 40 percent needed to clinch the nomination on May 8 without a runoff.

According to a new survey released Monday by Public Policy Polling, Dalton now leads former U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge by a 36 percent to 26 percent margin, with state Rep. Bill Faison at 5 percent. A poll released last week by the Civitas Institute also found Dalton surging.

Dalton’s edge comes after a blitz of TV ads in recent weeks – a spending spree fueled by his fundraising, which has been decidedly better than Etheridge’s, according to campaign finance reports released Monday.

Dalton has raised $1.4 million, giving him a more than 4-1 advantage over Etheridge, who has raised $310,00, according to figures released by the two campaigns.

Both candidates together, however, have raised far less than the presumptive Republican nominee, Pat McCrory, who held a fundraiser Monday afternoon in Raleigh. And with only a token primary challenge, McCrory has the advantage of being able to hold onto the bulk of his money for the general election.

‘A low information affair’

The marked financial difference between Dalton and Etheridge has shown up on the airwaves. Dalton has spent more than a half-million on TV ads, while Etheridge is spending about $200,000. With neither candidate very well known, Dalton’s polling numbers sharply climbed almost as soon as he went on the air.

“The truth is a gubernatorial primary without any widely known establishment candidate is a low information affair,” said Steven Greene, a political scientist at N.C. State University. “If you only know one candidate’s name because you heard it in a TV ad, that’s the one you are going to prefer.”

The Etheridge campaign sought Monday to stem the Dalton momentum. At a news conference outside the State Capitol, he rolled out the endorsements of dozens of prominent Democrats – many of whom he served with during his decades-long career in the legislature, as school superintendent and in Congress.

Among those attending the news conference and speaking were U.S. Reps. David Price of Chapel Hill, G.K. Butterfield of Wilson, former U.S. Sen. Robert Morgan of Lillington, former Reps. Eva Clayton of Warren County and Tim Valentine of Nashville and state Sen. Dan Blue of Raleigh.

“We think Bob Etheridge is the person for the times,” said Blue, who considered running for governor himself. “Bob Etheridge is the kind of leader that can make North Carolina a leader in creating new jobs.”

Most of the seven speakers noted Etheridge’s focus on education from his days as state superintendent. They also praised him for taking tough votes in Congress to support President Barack Obama’s agenda.

Etheridge: Voters know me

Etheridge dismissed concerns about his fundraising and poll numbers.

“We’d like to have more (money),” he said. “You’ve got to remember we started with zero. We’ll get through the primary OK. I think people know what I’ve done.”

Etheridge said Dalton had a week head start on TV advertising, but now he is matching Dalton “dollar for dollar” this week.

The winner of the Democratic primary will face a well-funded Republican opponent in McCrory. The former Charlotte mayor has reported having raised more than $3 million for his election campaign.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was the star at the fundraiser for McCrory on Monday at The Angus Barn in Raleigh. Bush was just the latest in a long list of Republican luminaries the national party has sent in to help McCrory, including former presidential candidate Steve Forbes, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.

The event, with a ticket price that ranged from $500 to $8,000, appeared to raise at least $220,000 based on just the host and co-host lists.

Chairing the event were former Ambassador Jim Cain and his wife Helen, builder Jeff Ammons and his wife Beth, SAS software founder Jim Goodnight, former Raleigh City Councilman Kieran Shanahan, Golden Corral executive Ted Fowler, and Michael and Cecilia Condrey.

McCrory’s ‘unique’ experience

“He has the experience that I think is unique in being mayor of a big city,” Bush told reporters before the event. “He has had enormous success as mayor and that can be applied to North Carolina.”

McCrory said many of the education reforms Bush instituted in Florida, such as ending social promotions and improving reading skills, he would like to try in North Carolina.

“We have to change education in North Carolina so we don’t have over a 20 percent drop-out rate in high schools,” McCrory said.

Christensen: 919-829-4532

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