Jenkins: Bobbing, weaving and punching

June 14, 2012 

The most shockingly negative campaign in North Carolina lore (please note we did not say "history") was not the Hunt-Helms race of 1984. And no, though things are getting right rough at this point, it won’t be this year’s campaign for governor between Charlotte’s Pat McCrory, former Republican mayor of the Queen City, and Walter Dalton, an up-through-the-ranks Democrat now on the political ladder at the rung known as the "last stop before governor or oblivion." That means he’s the lieutenant governor, a job that carries perhaps the highest risk in the state of injuries suffered from ribbon cuts at the various openings over which the office-holder presides.

(McCrory, who served 14 years in Charlotte, doubtless carries the scars of such duty himself, Charlotte having pretty much built everything brand new in the last 20 years or so and thus having needed a lot of ribbons cut.)

Anyway, in the midst of this ever-nastier battle for governor, we take you back to Mayberry, where in the 1960s Deputy Barney Fife staged a shocking campaign for sheriff against incumbent Andy Taylor. In the ultimate debate confrontation, Fife pulled out a briefcase and accused Taylor of 76 acts of "malfeasance," including allowing Otis Campbell to let himself in and out of the jail.

Taylor stood on his record and won, but was himself shocked by the accusations. Might it have led to his early departure from the job for another line of work as a postal inspector in Cleveland?

In any case, fast forward to McCrory, who has been in the unusual position of being a Republican actually attacked in aggressive campaign ads coming from a Democratic-leaning group sponsored in part by the Democratic Governors Association. It’s perfectly legal for groups such as this one, N.C. Citizens for Progress, to spend money on ads favorable to their candidate (or against one they don’t like) as if they had Donald Trump’s Platinum Card in Bergdorf’s.

The Supreme Court basically said that under the right umbrella, big donors can pour whatever they want into groups that would push an agenda clearly favorable to a candidate, though the committee could not work WITH the candidate or his or her campaign, strategizing and the like.

That’s a little like a guy saying, "Yeah, he’s my twin brother, but I never heard of him."

Now as to McCrory’s position of being attacked. He doesn’t much like it. Early on when Citizens for Progress started with ads questioning his ethics, his campaign lawyered up and made all sorts of noise about suing somebody. But the ads have kept coming and they’ll likely keep coming still.

Democrats don’t usually do this sort of stuff, so the mayor may have been caught by surprise. In fact, when it comes to the negative campaign game, the Democrats are usually on the other end, like a kid who keeps getting his lunch money stolen by a bully but still keeps walking the same route to school.

But another factor surely is McCrory’s experience. He did run against Gov. Beverly Perdue last time out, but that one never got mean, really. And prior to that, McCrory was Charlotte’s mayor at a time when the strongest campaign rhetoric there was, "I would please like to be mayor, thanks."

A governor’s race is different, and candidates sometimes have to take a punch in the chops and mount a counterattack without lawyers, or they look like they just can’t take it. (In other words, like Democrats, usually.) Although there’s nothing wrong with “going to the mattresses” (“The Godfather”) if a fellow’s been wronged.

Now as for the Republican Governors Association, well, it’s smacked Dalton around pretty good, putting him in grim commercials wherein he and Beverly Perdue are pictured as captain and first mate on the Titanic, otherwise known in the commercials as North Carolina.

To hear the GOP guvs tell it, the state’s economic downturn is entirely the handiwork of Perdue with Dalton at her right hand, and the same with the sorry state of just about everything else, in their view. In a couple of shots, the two actually appear to be joined at the hip.

Of course, the truth is that governors and lieutenant governors generally aren’t that close, and everybody knows it. Ah, well. Rumor has it next up from the other side is a commercial entitled: “The Nixon-McCrory connection: Where was Pat during the Watergate Break-In?” (He was 15 and in high school, but might the Democratic group suggest he was in Washington on a Boy Scout trip and up to no good? We’ll wait and see.)

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at jjenkins@newsobserver.com

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