GREENVILLE — Three miles separated the top candidates for governor Saturday as they began the final sprint toward the election. But the distance between Democrat Walter Dalton and Republican Pat McCrory appeared larger than ever on the campaign trail.
McCrory visited a local GOP office to deliver Krispy Kreme doughnuts and say a few words before the tailgate party at the East Carolina University football game. Given his double-digit lead in the polls, his stops felt more like a victory tour as he basked in the glow of fans calling him “governor.” “It’s like walking around with Bon Jovi,” quipped Henry Hinton, a well-known local TV station owner and radio host campaigning with McCrory.
At the same time, just down the road, Dalton greeted voters at a crowded polling location in Greenville on the final day of early balloting. His schedule included five stops in four counties in eastern North Carolina. At Wilson’s Whirliwig Festival, he shook 61 hands in 19 minutes.
“I understand my opponent is going to be at the ballgame,” Dalton told reporters at the voting site. “I’m out today until these polls close, meeting the voters, talking about how important this election is and letting them know that this is more than name recognition – this is really (about) substance in this race.”
The divergent styles reflect the conventional wisdom about the race. For two months, McCrory has enjoyed a 10-point or larger lead in nearly every poll. He has campaigned like an incumbent, offering few details about what he would do if elected and speaking only in larger platitudes about fixing a broken government and economy.
With only four days to go, McCrory felt comfortable shaking hands at a tailgate and football game instead working at polling sites. Asked about Dalton’s remark about his schedule, McCrory said, “This is more fun.”
His enthusiasm was unbounded. He greeted a reporter by throwing him a spiraling football. McCrory carried the ball with him at the tailgate, throwing to anyone who would oblige. “Put the beer down and go out long,” he told one guy clad in purple.
McCrory tried to warn supporters about being overconfident, but by the end of the day he relinquished all pretenses and just grinned.
“Pack your bags, buddy; you’re getting ready to change ZIP codes,” a man said as he shook the candidate’s hand.
“You weren’t here four years ago,” he told an aide moments later as they entered the stadium. Waving his arms apart, he added, “People scattered when we entered.”
Here is Down East – a part of the state dominated by registered Democrats with conservative views who are often considered swing voters. Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue, who lived in nearby New Bern, handily won this territory four years ago, a death blow to McCrory’s first statewide campaign.
So the Republican’s focus on this region – a frequent stop on his campaign circuit – is no accident.
Tom Jones, a 49-year-old Republican private school teacher, said he normally splits his ballot between Democrats and Republicans. But this year he voted a straight GOP ticket. The governor’s race “is a little tough for me because I know Dalton has done a lot of good things, especially in the area of education for our state,” he said outside an early voting site. But he said the whole election is about spending and “McCrory is more fiscally conservative.”
From the sideline of the ECU football field, McCrory said all the praise “goes in one ear and out the other.”
“I’m waiting until Tuesday night and we’re going to work the polls until the end,” he said, pulling away to greet the ECU head football coach.
The mood traveling with the Dalton campaign felt much different. The Democrat is working feverishly to reach as many voters as he can, traversing rural back roads that cut through cotton fields that look like snow banks and dirt patches where big tractors churn peanuts from the sandy soil.
Few signs on these roads tout Democratic candidates this year but Dalton scrambled his entire schedule for an impromptu stop in Snow Hill to work the crowd at the N.C. Sweet Potato Festival. It meant he arrived at an early voting site 45 minutes after it closed, but undeterred he stopped to shake hands with folks getting into the only two cars in the parking lot.
Later at the Whirligig Festival in downtown Wilson, few recognized Dalton at first. He walked four blocks before meeting a vocal supporter. But Dalton stuck his arm in front of anyone who would stop and felt energetic enough to shag dance with his wife at the festival’s bandstand. “You do anything you can and all that you can,” Dalton said of his final push. “Every vote counts and we are still trying to work every vote we can find.”
At one point, Dalton positioned himself in the middle of the road between the local Democratic Party’s booth and an odorous chicken satay food truck, and shook every hand he could reach. “I’m Walter Dalton and I’m running for governor,” he said over and over. “I hope I can count on your vote.”
“Here’s my wife Lucille. Proof positive I make good decisions,” he added.
A number of people eventually recognized Dalton from his catchy TV commercials and came to take picture. “I voted for him,” said Dale Bryant, a 46-year-old electrician. “I believe he’s a good man for the job.”