(1) Mitt who? v. Obama!
If the election was held today, the results in North Carolina could be without any recent precedent: the Republican candidate for Governor (McCrory) would be expected to win at the same time that Democratic candidate for President (Barack Obama) could also prevail here, albeit by a slimmer margin.
Over the past forty years, we’ve seen every combination in our quadrennial elections except what simultaneous McCrory (R)-Obama (D) wins in North Carolina would represent. Republicans have carried the state for both Governor and President (Holshouser and Nixon in ’72, Martin and Reagan in ’84, Martin and Bush I in ‘88). Democrats have also won both races (Hunt and Carter in ’76, Perdue and Obama in ’12). And, most frequently, Democrats have come out on top for Governor while Republicans collected North Carolina’s electoral votes in the Presidential contest (Hunt and Reagan in ’80, Hunt and Bush I in ’92, Hunt and Dole in ’96, Easley and Bush II in ’00, Easley and Bush II in ’04).
So, with McCrory polling ahead of Mitt Romney and Dalton polling behind Obama, a big question in the first debate is how hard do the gubernatorial candidates run from or to their top-of-the-ticket party mates? I expect more Dalton mentions of Obama than McCrory references to Romney.
(2) Making attacks matter by dot connecting.
If the candidates’ paid advertising is any indication, expect a lot of rhetorical punches and counterpunches during the debate. Political pundits often criticize candidates for “going negative”, yet a factually accurate discussion of an opponent’s record has always seemed like fair game to me. But what candidates too often fail to do is make the case -- in specific, concrete, fair, and convincing terms -- as to why an opponent’s past on a particular issue is relevant to a voter’s future. Such “connecting of the dots” is hard given the time constraints debates place on answers and rebuttals. But it’s up to McCrory and Dalton to make every second count. If they want to move voters, they can’t just lob an attack about their opponent’s past public votes or private sector work. The candidates need to explain effectively why an alleged transgression should matter to swing voters worried most about jobs, mortgages, and brighter opportunities for their children and grandchildren.
(3) Could “It’s education, dummy” be on par with “It’s the economy, stupid”?
Back in 1992, Bill Clinton strategist James Carville gained fame for keeping the Arkansas Governor’s Presidential campaign focused single mindedly on stagnant U.S. job growth and related domestic issues. To remind himself, his candidate, and the rest of the staff to never lose sight of the No. 1 issue for voters, the “Ragin’ Cajun” invoked as a mantra: “It’s the economy, stupid!” Twenty years later, the health of North Carolina’s economy and the availability of jobs is clearly a make or break issue for the two major party candidates for governor. But the health of North Carolina’s education system has emerged as issue No. 1A. Education-related headlines have dominated North Carolina news recently -- from the sacking of Wake County Superintendent Tony Tata to the courts’ lifting of legislative caps on pre-kindergarten programs aimed at “at risk” kids, from the expansion of charter schools to affordability and leadership issues on UNC campuses. If one of the candidates is able to make a convincing case they he will be the better “Education Governor” as well as the superior “Jobs Governor”, he is likely to get the opportunity to prove it.
(Hampton Dellinger is a former North Carolina Deputy Attorney General now in private practice and a contributor on legal and political topics for The Atlantic magazine. In 2008, he sought the Democratic nomination for Lt. Governor. You can follow Hampton on twitter at @hampdellinger)