DAVIDSON — The first televised debate Tuesday night reflected both a high-stakes Senate GOP primary race that is fluid and a party that is struggling to define itself.
State House Speaker Thom Tillis, who has been leading in the polls and in fundraising, emerged from the debate largely unscathed despite frequent barbs from Cary physician Greg Brannon, his tea party opponent.
The other two candidates, Charlotte pastor Mark Harris and Heather Grant, a nurse practitioner in Wilkes County, chose not to engage their opponents in a debate that was surprisingly staid.
The winner by default was Tillis, who had the most to risk because he has an extensive public record to defend and only rarely did he have to do so.
For the other candidates, particularly Brannon and Harris, it was a missed opportunity to build a strong case about why they, rather than Tillis, would make the better opponent to Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan in the fall.
The uneven debate perhaps reflected that none of the participants has ever run for a major office before, and the candidates seemed more comfortable giving their stump speeches than truly debating their opponents.
This is the first of three televised debates, and they loom particularly large because the polls suggest that Hagan is vulnerable and because North Carolina could decide whether the U.S. Senate remains in Democratic hands or flips to the Republicans.
These debates are a rarity.
This is the first competitive Republican Senate primary in North Carolina in a generation. The last one was in 1992, when Lauch Faircloth defeated former former Congressman Gene Johnston and former Charlotte Mayor Sue Myrick, the mother of Lt. Gov. Dan Forest.
In subsequent years, each GOP Senate primary was dominated by a major figure Sens. Jesse Helms, Elizabeth Dole or Richard Burr.
The three televised debates the second is on WRAL on Wednesday and the third on UNC-TV on Monday have the potential for having an outsized effect on the May 6 primary. Not only do polls suggest that a third of the primary voters are undecided but much of the support that does exist for the candidates is likely to be soft. That means the GOP primary electorate could be very volatile. Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that the primary campaigns have so far generated little excitement, and so many voters are only now beginning to pay attention.
The primary may be similar to the 2012 GOP presidential primary, where strong debate showings by such candidates as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and businessman Herman Cain, caused major swings in the race.
One reason for the volatility is that the Senate candidates are no longer backed by powerful organizations. For several decades, the Helms organization recruited and ran GOP Senate candidates in the state. When George Bush was president, his chief White House adviser, Karl Rove, helped recruit Dole and Burr to run for the Senate.
But this is the age of independent freelancers. The closest thing to an anointed candidate this time is Tillis, who has received major financial support from Rove, whom Burr has helped, and whom Gov. Pat McCrory has called the most electable.
But such endorsements mean less than they used to. The GOP is splintered into business conservatives, tea party and evangelical factions, even if there is a lot of crossover between the groups.
So the North Carolina primary is a microcosm of the national party debate, with such tea party figures as Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah supporting Brannon, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee backing Harris.
But the Senate candidates Tuesday largely tried to paper over their differences with each burnishing their conservative credentials.