RALEIGH — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Walter Dalton began his television advertising campaign Wednesday, in what could be a critical moment in his race against Republican Pat McCrory.
Trailing McCrory in the polls and still not known by nearly half the state’s voters, Dalton hopes the statewide TV advertising campaign will provide his candidacy with a much needed boost.
But the fact that the sitting lieutenant governor is running his first ad in mid-September introducing himself to voters – complete with footage of him in his hometown of Rutherfordton – shows how far he has to go in the final eight weeks.
McCrory, the former Charlotte mayor, has been running for governor since 2008 when he was the GOP nominee.
“He really needs to make a mark here,” said Andy Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University in Raleigh. “There is a sort of sense of inevitability about a McCrory victory. That needs to be changed (from Dalton’s point of view). With the tremendous shadow of the presidential race and the lack of money, it’s going to be very difficult for him to do that.”
Dalton unexpectedly entered the governor’s race in January, when Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue said she would not seek a second term.
“I can’t think of anybody in recent history who started so late,” said Gary Pearce, a veteran Democratic strategist. “He is running against a quasi-incumbent. In a way, McCrory never stopped running.”
Pearce calls the governor’s contest “an upside down race,” with the former Charlotte mayor the well-financed front-runner and the sitting lieutenant governor the underfinanced challenger who must make the case to voters why they should not elect McCrory.
Dalton has two chances to change the chemistry of the race, Taylor said. He can make headway through his advertising and during three televised debates in October.
Part of McCrory’s advantage has been his superior campaign war chest. He began advertising Aug. 7, running ads portraying him as a strong, bipartisan leader when he was mayor of Charlotte. Even as Dalton begins his TV ad campaign, he will likely have a difficult time matching McCrory on the air.
The McCrory campaign has purchased $6.1 million in advertising since the spring with $2.5 million of that on ads already having aired. The Republican Governors Association has purchased $5.4 million during that same time period , according to media buyers.
The Dalton campaign has purchased $2.7 million in TV advertising, while its ally, the Democratic Governors Association, through N.C. Citizens for Progress, has purchased $2.6 million, according to media buyers.
Helping McCrory gain the financial edge has been the Republican Governors Association, which has made North Carolina its top target in the country. It has sent a host of governors and other top officials to the state to help raise money. Among the visitors have been Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Bob McDonnell of Virginia and Nikki Haley of South Carolina; former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush; and former presidential candidate Steve Forbes.
Christie will be back in the state Thursday to hold a rally in Salisbury and attend a fundraiser in Charlotte for McCrory.
At the Republican convention in Tampa, Fla., Christie quipped that he will be in the state so often, “you will think I am running for governor of North Carolina.’’
Dalton has received help from former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell. Next week, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, the head of the Democratic Governors Association, will campaign for Dalton. More importantly, the DGA is expected to begin running TV ads to help Dalton next week, and are expected to spend about $5 million.
Dalton will need all the help he can get.
“He faces a big obstacle in money,” said Pearce. “He has to run two campaigns. He has to run a campaign with voters, and he has to run a campaign with donors. But even with an aggressive fundraising campaign, it’s going to be hard to close that gap.”