RALEIGH — North Carolina’s major candidates for governor will hold the first of three statewide televised debates Wednesday, in a match-up that could be overshadowed – like much of their campaign – by the presidential contest.
Democratic Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton and former Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory, a Republican, will debate each other at 7 p.m. Wednesday in Durham, two hours before President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney take the stage in Denver.
The debate, sponsored by the N.C. Association of Broadcasters Educational Foundation, was designed to piggyback on interest in the presidential debate. But not everyone is convinced that the governor’s debate will benefit from the pairing.
Gary Pearce, a longtime Democratic strategist, said that television and newspapers will likely be dominated by the presidential debate.
“If I was advising a gubernatorial candidate and I wanted a debate to get no attention at whatsoever, I would want it this way,” Pearce said.
The second debate, also sponsored by the broadcasters, will be Oct. 16, again just hours before the presidential debate. A third debate, sponsored by WRAL, will be held on Oct. 24 in Rocky Mount.
The debate is likely to be more important to Dalton, who has consistently trailed McCrory by a significant margin in the polls. Dalton became the Democratic candidate in January only after Gov. Bev Perdue surprised many by announcing she would not run for re-election. McCrory ran a close race in 2008 and has been laying the groundwork for his re-election since then.
“It’s his last chance,” said Michael Munger, a political science professor at Duke University said of Dalton. “Barring a last-minute surprise or a gaffe (by McCrory), this is his best chance to go head-to-head.”
Munger, who as the Libertarian candidate for governor in 2008 debated McCrory, says Dalton and McCrory have very different missions in the debate. For Dalton, it is to be the aggressor, raising doubts about McCrory. For McCrory, it is to avoid any blunders or controversies that might hinder his momentum.
“Dalton is ill-suited for the task that lies ahead of him,” Munger said. “McCrory has been running like an incumbent. He’s not, but he’s been using the incumbent strategy of appearing places, smiling and kissing babies and eating barbecue and it’s worked. ...
So Dalton has to attack in ads and he has to attack in the debates. He is ill-suited temperamentally because he is a good man. His virtue is his flaw.”
Munger said there is far more pressure on Dalton to perform well than McCrory.
“All McCrory has to do is avoid answering questions,” he said. “I don’t mean that as a slur. That is the way debates work if you are the incumbent.”
Munger said McCrory is a skilled debater. “He is mentally quick. His experiences as mayor give him enough concrete examples that he can say, ‘We dealt with this problem.’ ”
He said that McCrory is a genuinely nice guy, and that it will be difficult for Dalton to attack him without coming across as shrill. “Dalton has to walk a narrow, narrow tightrope.”
Munger said he expects Dalton to portray McCrory as an ally of an unpopular Republican legislature, while McCrory presents himself as an independent, moderate mayor of Charlotte.
While Munger sees this as a critical moment for Dalton, Pearce thinks the stakes are lower because the governor’s debate will get far less attention than the presidential race.
Dalton’s major problem, said Pearce, is that according to recent polls, nearly half the voters do not know him. He said one debate will not change that.
“It is an opportunity for him,” Pearce said. “But it’s hard to see how even an exceptional performance in the debate closes the gap he faces. He has got to depend on a lot of advertising and he is going to need a lot of money to close the knowledge gap between him and McCrory.
“The voters don’t know McCrory very well, but they don’t know Dalton at all.”