Morrisville, N.C. — U.S. Sen. Richard Burr smiled after he was given an effusive introduction during a groundbreaking at a pharmaceutical company in Morrisville earlier this week.
"I'm just glad my wife was here. She doesn't think I work very hard," Burr said, before giving a quick parenthetical aside. "She's been watching too much TV, I think."
Burr, 60, a Republican and former U.S. House member, is running for his third term in the Senate against Deborah Ross, 53, a former Democratic state representative hoping to unseat him.
Broadly speaking, the 2016 U.S. Senate campaign thus far has been a broadcast media slugfest between the two campaigns and their allies, with both sides going negative early and often in televised ads. Ross and Democrats accuse Burr of enriching himself and campaign donors while in Washington. Burr and his allies have aired a series of ads attacking Ross as soft on sex offenders and other criminals, in particular citing her work as executive director of the North Carolina branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The two will meet for their first and only debate of the fall campaign at an event hosted by the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters Educational Foundation at UNC-TV's studios in Research Triangle Park on Thursday night. Libertarian Sean Haugh is also on the ballot, but he was not invited to participate in the debate.
So far, it's unclear if the punches and counter punches Burr and Ross have thrown at one another are landing with voters in a state that was already figuratively swamped by presidential campaign visits and advertising. Hurricane Matthew, which has destroyed homes and threatened entire small towns, has since drawn attention away from politics in general and even further from the U.S. Senate contest.
In a recent WRAL News poll, Burr held a 46 to 44 percent lead over Ross, which was well within the margin of error and consistent with polling averages that give the incumbent a slight edge over his challenger.
Viewed one way, it's surprising that such a long-term incumbent is struggling to fend off a relatively unknown former legislator. On the other hand, Burr has consistently held a lead in the state, something fellow Republicans Donald Trump and Gov. Pat McCrory can't say in their races for president or governor.
"The knock on Burr is that he's low-profile. But in this case, that works to his advantage because people don't have a lot of negative information about him," said Eric Heberlig, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. "Trump and McCrory are both in trouble because there are things about them that people intensely dislike."
More so than races at the top of the ticket, Heberlig argues, results in the Senate race will be driven by which party turns out its voters rather than their clash of ideas.
Burr and Ross offer voters a sharp contrast in philosophies.
The incumbent is generally viewed as a reliable conservative, particularly on fiscal issues. As chairman of the Senate's Select Committee on Intelligence, he plays a role in overseeing the country's spy agencies and national security. However, much of that work takes place behind closed doors and doesn't raise his profile the way heading a budget or tax committee would.
Ross served in the state House from 2002 to 2013. Before the GOP took control of the chamber in 2011, Ross was a chairman on the Judiciary and Ethics committees. She also served in the Democratic leadership as a whip. During that time, she had a reputation as one of the more liberal or progressive members of the House Democratic caucus.
The two differ on any number of issues. Burr wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act, known by many as "Obamacare," and replace it with a series of changes that emphasize consumer choice. Burr says he wants to make costs more transparent and allow residents of one state to buy plans licensed by another. Ross says she would vote to improve the ACA and says North Carolina should expand Medicaid as allowed under the president's signature health care law.
On education, Ross has called for increasing funding for Pell Grants and providing for debt-free community college. Burr has called for tax credits for low-income families and encouraging employers to match their employees' savings for higher education.
Burr also has sided with his fellow senators in blocking Obama's U.S. Supreme Court choice, appeals court Judge Merrick Garland, saying the "American people deserve a voice in the nomination of the next Supreme Court justice." Ross blasted that stance, saying that Burr was failing to do his job.
Thursday's debate might be the first time some of those differences will be aired to a mass audience.
While both candidates have done some positive advertising to highlight their respective biographies, much of their fire has concentrated on hammering on a pair of narratives.
"People go to Washington and are just in it for themselves," Ross says in a recent ad. "Richard Burr has taken more than $1 million from insurance companies and then wrote his own plan to privatize Medicare."
She has repeatedly drawn the line between policy decisions on things such as energy and Burr's campaign donations.
Burr, for his part, has targeted Ross' tenure as head of the state ACLU.
"As a prosecutor, Deborah Ross' dangerous record angers me," Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O'Neill says in a recent Burr ad. "As an ACLU lobbyist, Deborah Ross fought against public disclosure of sex offenders."
Ross says she was trying to improve specific parts of the law and ensure victims weren't hurt. But the charge is so volatile, her campaign was forced to respond with its own ad featuring a primary sponsor of the sex offender bill.
Most recently, the GOP has dialed in on a court brief in which Ross argued for leniency for an underage sex offender.
It's likely that the debate will see the candidates trade those same charges, and it's likely both will have to address their respective party's candidate for president. Burr has recently said he still backs Trump for president despite recently revealed vulgar remarks about women. Ross, like many Democrats, has faced questions about whether she considers Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton to be trustworthy.
However, it appears Ross has benefited more from the Clinton campaign's efforts to win North Carolina than Burr has from Trump. She has seen an influx of spending on her behalf from outside organizations and national Democratic leaders who were slow to intervene in the contest. With Democrats viewing the state as a potential win in the presidential contest, she has gotten some high-profile name checks from Clinton surrogates visiting the state.
"She is a worker," President Barack Obama declared about Ross during a campaign rally this week. "She’s heard your stories. She’s going to fight to make sure working families have a fair shot, that our kids have a world-class education, that seniors have the secure retirement they have earned. And unlike her opponent, she’s certainly not going to keep standing with Donald Trump."
That said, the vast majority of those watching the debate will be voters who are very interested in the race and, very likely, who have already made up their minds, Heberlig said. The biggest impact of the bout, he said, may come if one of the candidates makes a major misstep or has a particularly good moment.
"If there's any impact the debate makes, it will be because one of the candidates says something that gets a lot of replay either in traditional media or social media," he said.