RALEIGH -- A default expectation for North Carolina's fall elections is that Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper will clash in a bruising gubernatorial race.
First, these politicians must win their respective March 15 primaries. While Cooper and McCrory have large advantages in fundraising and name recognition over primary challengers, their leading rivals are bringing them political discomfort.
Democrat Ken Spaulding and Republican Robert Brawley have gained supporters and some formal endorsements along the way. These former legislators are largely relying on media reports and word of mouth, and hoping perceived unhappiness within the electorate of the status quo and decisions by the front-runners will bring votes.
"It's not just about (raising) money, and this is what I'm trying to prove," Spaulding said in an interview.
Brawley said, "You shouldn't be buying the office .... I'm trying to show people I have earned the office."
Cooper and McCrory have largely avoided criticizing their primary rivals. Their campaigns, however, have been harping on each other for months.
McCrory, who ran for governor and lost in 2008 but won in 2012, said primary voters should choose him in part because he's put the state on stronger financial footing and made government more efficient.
"I have followed through on almost every commitment that I promised, and the first one was to rebuild the economy of North Carolina," the former Charlotte mayor said in an interview. "We still have got a lot of work to do, but we've had a heck of a rebound."
Brawley is an Iredell County insurance consultant who once ran for state insurance commissioner. He lost his state House seat in 2014 after a public feud with Speaker Thom Tillis made him an electoral target.
Public opposition to the state's plans for a private company to build toll lanes on Interstate 77 north of Charlotte initially caused Brawley to run again for the House. But he said he switched to governor after reports last fall surfaced about McCrory's role in resolving a state prison maintenance contract flap that involved a friend.
"I just felt like somebody needed to step up and say something about it," Brawley said. He said McCrory has done some good things but hasn't gone far enough making government more transparent. Brawley said he would cancel the I-77 contract.
Also running in the GOP primary is Charles Kenneth Moss of Randleman, who finished last in the race for the 2012 gubernatorial nomination. Moss blames McCrory for getting the state into legal troubles and is working on a plan to make two years of community college free. Lon Cecil is the Libertarian nominee.
While Brawley got in the race in December, Spaulding announced in August 2013. The attorney has been involved in economic development projects in Durham and said he would use his skills to bring jobs and investment to rural areas and small towns if elected.
Spaulding labels Cooper the establishment candidate and blasts him for defending in court laws passed by the Republican-led General Assembly, particularly the 2013 election law that requires photo identification to vote in person. Litigation alleges the law burdens black voters disproportionately.
"I just think it's wrong for you, Mr. Attorney General, to be defending these Republicans on this matter," Spaulding, a member of prominent black Durham family, said during a candidate forum.
Cooper, the attorney general since 2001 and previously a legislator, said he's doing what voters elected him to do by representing the state in court, even though he personally opposes many GOP laws he defends, including the election law. Both Spaulding and Cooper have received endorsements from local black political organizations.
"For 15 years as attorney general I've done my job and I am going to keep doing it until the end of the term," Cooper said, adding if elected governor he would reverse the wrong direction McCrory and other Republicans have taken the state on the public schools and taxes.
"I think people can look at my record and decide for themselves whether I'm ready to be governor," Cooper said.
Potentially foreshadowing the fall, McCrory questions what Cooper or Spaulding would do differently than him: "The results speak for themselves, and I'd be glad to debate the results."