GREENSBORO — Pat McCrory was back on his home court.
Speaking to a Rotary Club at the Greensboro Coliseum, he conjured memories of a place where hed seen Elvis, worked as an usher and watched basketball greats such as N.C. States David Thompson.
Scanning the banquet hall, he pointed out people he knew growing up in nearby Jamestown. Old family friends. A one-time boss named Doug Copeland.
He supervised a teenage McCrory in the office of the late Democratic U.S. Rep. Richardson Preyer. Now he recalls the intern as energetic, outgoing and optimistic.
Today I get the same sense, says Copeland. He worked the room brilliantly.
As he runs for the states top office against Democratic Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, McCrory has reason for optimism.
With a wide lead in most polls, he could become North Carolinas first Republican governor in 20 years, the first in more than a century to govern with a Republican-led General Assembly.
The former Charlotte mayor, 56, also is poised to do what he couldnt do against Democrat Bev Perdue in 2008 and what four Charlotte predecessors failed to do seven times since 1984: win statewide office.
But North Carolinas political landscape has changed dramatically in four years. Critics say McCrory has, too. Like his party, they say, the man who led Charlotte for 14 years as a moderate has shifted to the right.
Obviously it looks like hes embraced a lot of the tea party agenda, Dalton says.
Since taking over the General Assembly last year, GOP lawmakers have literally redrawn the map of North Carolina politics. They adopted a budget that cut spending for schools and colleges, reduced some taxes and passed measures such as a voter ID bill that prompted a flurry of Perdue vetoes.
What happened in between 2008 and 2012 was the tea party insurgency that captured the Republican Party, particularly here in North Carolina, says Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College, McCrorys alma mater. McCrory has had to make some philosophical adjustments.
McCrory insists he hasnt moved a bit in his positions or beliefs.
But he and his party have made mutual accommodations.
Rising from a defeat
After losing to Perdue in 2008 by less than 4 percentage points, McCrory says he assumed my political career was over. But a year later, with Perdues popularity ratings crashing amid a budget crisis that forced her to cut state jobs and salaries, he was laying the groundwork for another run.
He stumped the state for GOP candidates and started the New Leadership Political Action Committee that helped fund their campaigns. He spoke out against President Barack Obamas health care plan at rallies sponsored by Americans for Prosperity, a group founded by the conservative Koch brothers and tied to the tea party movement.
At the groups request, McCrory recorded calls in 2010 against a Democratic bill in Raleigh that would have expanded public funding for statewide campaigns. The robo calls sparked what one Senate Democrat called a firestorm of complaints that forced his party to withdraw the bill. McCrory made other calls attacking Perdue vetoes.
It all paid off. Unlike in 2008, McCrory faced no serious primary challenge this year.
He obviously did what was necessary from a political standpoint to avoid a primary, says Dallas Woodhouse, state director for Americans for Prosperity. One reason (conservatives) felt comfortable was because they got to know him better.
McCrory has had an uneasy relationship with some small-government conservatives.
In Charlotte, he championed a $460 million light-rail line and led campaigns for voters first to raise and then to keep the sales tax to pay for it. After voters rejected a nonbinding referendum in 2001 for projects that included a new uptown arena, he helped find a way to build one. He pushed for public funding for the NASCAR Hall of Fame and an ambitious package of arts projects now known as the Levine Center for the Arts. He hasnt been conservative anytime on City Council or as mayor, says Charlotte Republican Don Reid, a former City Council member and persistent critic.
Other conservatives, however, have grown comfortable.
Pat McCrory is the type of person that knows how to talk to both sides, says Franklin Lawson, president of the Catawba Valley Tea Party. If we get somebody in office at least drifting in the right direction, were in good shape.
The solid support from his own party has helped McCrory to a fundraising edge.
His campaign has announced it had raised nearly $10 million through September. Dalton has yet to announce his own take, though its expected to be considerably less. The money shows up in TV buys. McCrorys campaign and its allies have bought $12 million in TV ads, while the Dalton campaign and its allies have bought $5.2 million.
Running hard to the right
For some, McCrorys problem isnt that hes too moderate. Its that hes become more conservative. On no issue do they sense a shift as much as the environment.
McCrory has become an outspoken proponent of offshore oil drilling and the controversial gas exploration known as fracking. And at this years state GOP convention, he endorsed a resolution opposing the United Nations so-called Agenda 21, a 20-year-old blueprint that advocates sustainable smart growth.
The GOP resolution called Agenda 21 a comprehensive plan of extreme environmentalism, social engineering and global political control.
It raises the question of which Pat McCrory the people of North Carolina will get, says Molly Diggins, state director of the Sierra Club. Pat McCrory is running hard to the right Charlotte has a reputation as a forward-looking city And Im not seeing any of that in what Pat McCrory is offering now.
In Charlotte, McCrory advocated smart growth and pushed for coordinated planning along the light rail and other transportation corridors. On the stump, he touts such efforts and promises to bring state government long-term strategies in areas such as transportation and infrastructure.
McCrory says that although he supports parts of Agenda 21, I dont believe the U.N. should determine land-use policy for local government.
He invokes Charlotte in other ways. One is as an example of what he calls high state taxes that drove some employers across the line to South Carolina.
A company had the option of moving a hundred yards away and having a cheaper tax rate, he told an economic development conference in Greensboro recently.
Cutting taxes is a staple of McCrorys platform just as it was in 2008. So are curbing government regulation and boosting energy exploration.
Pat certainly hasnt changed, says Bob Orr, a former N.C. Supreme Court justice who ran against McCrory in the 2008 GOP primary. Hes still very much a middle-of-the-road candidate.
Connecting with voters
Two years ago, McCrory won a Metrolina Theatre Association Award for his cameo appearance in Charlotte Squawks, a musical satire of people and issues in the news. Over the years, his videotaped cameos have included self-deprecating sendups, often with deadpan deliveries. This year, he donned sunglasses in a mock come-on to female voters.
McCrory always has sold himself as much as his ideas.
People who disagree with him tend to still get along with him, says John Hood, president of the conservative John Locke Foundation. He has that characteristic that is valuable in politics of getting people to like him. He is more a candidate of personality than he is of public policy details. Thats not a bad thing.
At the economic development conference, McCrory talked about recruitment strategies. But, he told the audience, You and I both know that a lot of economic recruitment is about relationships.
McCrory has used personal leverage before, in business and in public office. When the Charlotte Hornets left town, he helped persuade the NBA to promise an expansion franchise. He wooed executives of companies such as General Dynamics, which moved a division headquarters to Charlotte in 2003.
Hes a good salesman, says Commerce Secretary Keith Crisco, a Democrat who attended the economic development conference. Hes a good point person, very good. He was a 3A in economic development. Hed talk to anybody, anytime, anyplace.
Woodhouse, of Americans for Prosperity, credits McCrorys personal appeal with helping Republicans coalesce around his candidacy.
In North Carolina there has been an extraordinarily limited number of politicians that could truly connect in a personal way, and McCrory is one of them, he says. When Pat McCrory gets in a room, no matter who hes talking to, he has a way of connecting to people. That is not something weve seen in a lot of Republican candidates for statewide office.
Salesmanship also has helped McCrorys bottom line.
Making money amid conflicts
McCrory likes to say he was out of a job after the 2008 election. But that didnt last long.
In January 2009, he joined the board of Charlotte-based Tree.com, the parent of LendingTree and other consumer finance and real estate sites. Last year he earned $112,500 in cash and stock, according to a company report.
The same week he joined his brother Phil in McCrory & Company, a business consulting firm.
A few months later, McCrory took a seat on the board of Kewaunee Scientific Corp., a Statesville firm that builds lab furniture. According to a company filing, he earned pay and benefits worth $53,168 in the year that ended April 30.
In January 2010, he began another job: as a strategic policy consultant at the Charlotte-based law firm Moore & Van Allen. Neither McCrory nor the firm will say exactly what he does or what he earns. The firm says he does no lobbying, instead working as a sort of rainmaker for new clients.
Ernie Reigel, who chairs the firms marketing committee, says McCrory contributes greatly to our marketing and client development work.
Critics suggest McCrory, who has promised to pursue gas and oil drilling in the state, could face conflicts of interest from working at a firm whose clients include the American Petroleum Institute. He has denied the charge, though he has declined to say what companies he works with at the law firm.
According to his personal financial disclosure, McCrory also collected thousands in honoraria and consulting fees last year, including more than $5,000 for appearances on FlashPoint, a weekly public affairs show on WCNC-TV.
McCrory, unlike Dalton, has declined to reveal his tax returns. Records show that he paid off a $258,000 mortgage in May 2011.
Teaming with the legislature
When McCrory was a guest on WFAE-FMs Charlotte Talks earlier this month, a listener asked: If elected, would he govern as a moderate or side with the legislature?
McCrory gave what has become his standard answer.
Ive stepped on the toes of the right and the left, he said. Im going to be my own man.
McCrory has said hell try to be a teammate of the legislature. He says he would have signed some GOP-sponsored bills that Perdue vetoed, such as voter ID, but opposed others such as one that curbs local governments ability to regulate billboards.
GOP House Speaker Thom Tillis of Cornelius says he expects a lot of cooperation if McCrory is elected.
I dont think that were going to find many instances where were going to disagree, Tillis says.
Gary Pearce, a Democratic strategist and blogger, doesnt expect any honeymoon to last long.
Wait until the legislative leadership decides to show him whos boss, Pearce blogged recently. Wait until a couple of really, really conservative Republican legislators squawk when McCrory makes a moderate peep.
Staff writer Rob Christensen contributed to this report.