Christensen: McCrory's dance with presidential politics

rchristensen@newsobserver.comAugust 28, 2012 

Pat McCrory, candidate for N.C. Governor.

AESTHETIC IMAGES PHOTOGRAPHY — Courtesy of McCrory for Governor

— After the last presidential election, Pat McCrory ran into President Barack Obama at a Washington event.

“I complimented the president,” McCrory said. “I said, ‘you kicked our tail.’ ”

“We did, didn’t we?” Obama responded, according to McCrory.

If it wasn’t for presidential politics, McCrory believes he would be in the middle of a re-election campaign for governor.

There is no way of knowing for sure, McCrory says. But he said that in 2008 it was difficult to overcome the strong turnout engineered by Obama’s presidential campaign – especially as Republican John McCain virtually ignored the state.

McCrory, a Republican who was then Charlotte mayor, ended up losing to Democratic Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue by a 50 percent to 47 percent margin, or 145,021 votes, the closest governor’s race in the country that year. Obama carried the state by a 49.7 to 49.4 percent margin or 14,177 votes.

But this time, McCrory said things will be different. The Republicans are putting together a grassroots organization that they believe can compete with the Obama organization.

“The national campaign is on the ground,” McCrory said. “I never saw McCain in the last election. ... There will be no surprises. Both sides will have equal get-out-the vote operations.”

A sign of the change: Earlier this month, McCrory campaigned with Romney and his vice presidential running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, as they made a bus trip through Mooresville and High Point. McCrory said he hopes to campaign with them in the future.

Staying in North Carolina

But he won’t be doing so this week in Tampa.

McCrory said he had originally planned to visit the Republican National Convention for one day but eventually decided the time would be better spent campaigning in Western North Carolina.

“I don’t have any voters in Florida,” he quipped. “I have been to three or four conventions. Frankly the conventions are not as relevant, especially for local and state campaigns. It’s more of a national focus.”

But it was slightly awkward to have New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie sing his praises to a Tar Heel delegation breakfast Monday in St. Pete, while McCrory was back in North Carolina.

McCrory appears to be trying to perform a political balancing act – being a party loyalist in supporting the national ticket while at the same time trying to broaden his coalition by reaching out to independents and Democrats.

He said he sees no downside to campaigning with the national ticket, although Democrats have tried to tie him to Romney in refusing to release his tax records. One Democratic video uses puppets portraying McCrory dropping off his tax returns on a Caribbean island while Romney looks on.

But at the same time McCrory is attempting to broaden his appeal beyond his GOP base. In his campaign TV ads, he talks about his efforts to take bipartisan approaches as Charlotte mayor.

So far his strategy has worked. McCrory has the support of 19 percent of Democratic voters, according to a survey taken earlier this month by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning firm based in Raleigh.

Such support from Democrats and independents is a major reason why he has maintained a significant lead in the polls over Democratic Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton.

“We have had a lot of people who have told me they are voting for me and Obama,” McCrory said. “But that won’t stop me from trying to get a new president elected. But we welcome support from all sides.”

Jack Hawke, McCrory’s chief strategist, said that the rule of thumb used to be that in order for a Republican gubernatorial candidate to carry the state, that GOP presidential candidate had to carry at least 54 percent of the vote. But Hawke said that is no longer true because there is now so much ticket-splitting going on, and because there has been a large growth of unaffiliated voters.

“I think it is possible to win even if you are losing the state at the presidential level,” said Hawke, a former state GOP chairman.

Hawke believes both McCrory and Romney could pull voters to the polls, helping each other’s candidacies. He said the two campaigns are working together on turnout efforts.

McCrory will be doing just that next week in Charlotte when the Democrats are holding their convention in facilities – Time Warner Cable Arena and the Bank of America Stadium – that he played a major role in helping build. He plans to be there for a day or so before he heads east to campaign.

“I am proud the convention is there,” McCrory said. “I am going to try to get them to spend as much money in our state as possible to help our economy. Then I am going to try to convince as many of them who are attending from North Carolina to vote for Pat McCrory for governor. So I am going to be campaigning in Charlotte part of that time.”

Which sounds as though the Republican candidate for governor will be spending more time this year at the Democratic convention than the GOP convention.

Christensen: 919-829-4532

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