Clayton, N.C. — A man-sized metal sculpture of an anthropomorphic hot dog with a top hat looked on as Dan Forest talked to the post-breakfast crowd at Jones Cafe on Main Street Wednesday. About ten supporters sipped coffee around a red-checked tablecloth to chew over education policy, the need for lower taxes and a sense that government isn't on their side.
"Government should be there to serve the citizens, not to impose on the citizens," said Doug White, an N.C. Department of Agriculture employee who is volunteering for Forest's campaign. Why, he asked, couldn't government work more at eliminating waste and helping people, rather than punishing businesses that violated some small rule or another?
"It starts with leadership," Forest said, clearly comfortable with a line straight from his stump speech. "It starts with Pat McCrory as governor and a lieutenant governor with a background in business."
About 16 hours earlier, Linda Coleman was making her pitch to a small group of voters in Greensboro. The Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor ordered coffee from the lunch counter of the Iron Hen Cafe, a joint with green-painted chairs and a selection of strawberry, red velvet and coconut cakes positioned in front of a coffee bar.
"What got you into politics? Especially these days, what keeps you in," asked John Farmer, a recently retired financial adviser who came out to meet the candidate after missing a phone call from her the week before.
"Public service is what I love," said Coleman, a former teacher, human resources administrator and lawmaker. "It's a sense of being able to make a difference in the lives of so many people."
Spending time on the stump meeting with small groups of supporters isn't the most efficient way to campaign for a statewide office in a state the size of North Carolina. But candidates for what is nominally the second-highest office in the state are caught betwixt and between.
Their race isn't high profile enough to attract big money donations or attention from national outside groups that bring with them the ability to buy large blocks of television air time. Unlike candidates for Agriculture Commissioner, Insurance Commissioner or even state Senate, candidates for lieutenant governor don't have a natural geographic or industry-based constituency to concentrate upon. And the office itself is poorly understood. Both Forest and Coleman say they get questions nearly every day about whether they are running in tandem with their party's candidates for governor and what exactly the lieutenant governor does in office.
For the record, candidates for governor and lieutenant governor run separately and they will occupy different slots on the ballot. Once in office, the daily duties of the lieutenant governor involve presiding over the state Senate, serving on a handful of state boards and whatever else lawmakers or the governor might assign.
While they don't run as a team, the gubernatorial candidates, Republican Pat McCrory and Democrat Walter Dalton, both say they back their party's nominee.
"Walter Dalton is a strong supporter of Linda Coleman and looks forward to working with her if they are both elected," Dalton spokesman Schorr Johnson said. "As the current Lieutenant Governor, he knows the challenges of the role and the realities of being separately elected constitutional officers."
McCrory spokesman Brian Nick said his candidate hasn't figured out what exactly his working relationship would be with the lieutenant governor, but expressed optimism is would be a good one.
"Of course Pat endorses and supports Dan Forrest and looks forward to working with him," Nick said. "They have a great relationship and Pat certainly would want to discuss specifics with Mr. Forrest in terms of his ideas and vision for the office."
Left unsaid is what might have happen if voters choose a governor from one party and a lieutenant governor from another party. That happened twice in recent memory, once in the 1970s and then again in the 1980s. Polls released over the past month show the race for lieutenant governor is much closer than the gubernatorial contest, in which McCrory has been leading Dalton by double-digit margins. And in 2008, 94,800 fewer voters made a selection in the the lieutenant governor's race than voted for governor, a fall-off in voting typical of the contest which means a close race might decided by those who chose not to cast a vote.
"We just can't afford to have that drop off," Forest said.
In some respects, Coleman and Forest are candidates out of central casting for their respective parties.
"There's nothing subtle about this contest," Forest said, noting the big differences in background and approaches to government. "I'm conservative, she's not."
Coleman, a former Wake County Commissioner, earned attention as a freshman lawmaker when she nearly scuttled a budget deal in 2005 over raises that fell short of promised increases for state employees. The closely divided House needed her vote to pass the bill, and the budget ended up being tweaked to meet her demand.
That maneuver earned her the long-standing backing of the State Employees Association of North Carolina. The union has not chosen sides in the governor's race but spent heavily on Coleman's behalf in the Democratic primary and promises to continue its backing through November.Last week, it launched a $200,000 television commercial buy on her behalf, labeling Forest as "extreme."
Coleman was state personnel director before stepping down to run for lieutenant governor. She emphasizes her knowledge of government and women's issues and her website plays up a "Women for Coleman" group.
Asked where she might break with Dalton on policy, Coleman said she didn't know. "I really haven't had the opportunity to review his polices," she said.
She criticizes Forest's resume as light on public service, and said the Republican seems rigid in his positions.
"Our belief systems are probably so different that we would not be inclined to agree on very much," Coleman said. "I believe in compromise. People send us to Raleigh to get things done, not preside over gridlock.
For his part, Forest is a partner in an architectural firm and became the Republican nominee after a bruising primary that went to an August runoff against Wake County Commissioner Tony Gurley.
Asked where he might break with McCrory, Forest said he was unsure.
"I'm sure there are going to be areas where we disagree," he said.
Like McCrory, Forest plays up his business experience. In addition, his resume lists service on a number of conservative or religious-leaning nonprofit boards, such as Wake Forest Pregnancy Support Services, Triangle Leadership Forum and the Heritage Foundation's North Carolina board.
In a recent web video, Forest appears with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
"Dan's opponent has spent her entire career working for the state," Huckabee says in the spot. "Her background is bureaucracy, not business. Of course the unions are supporting Dan's opponent, and you know they're going to want to pretty good return on their investment."
In the same commercial, Forest delivers a Chick-fil-A sandwich to Huckabee, an echo of the recent dust up over gay marriage in which the fast food chain found itself embroiled. Huckabee, who tells viewers to "just vote your values" and Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed have helped raise money for Forest.
"My value system informs what I do every day. It would certainly inform what I do in government," Forest said. That doesn't mean he'll make decision through a "Christian filter," but added that values do matter. "All legislation that passes is moral. Some people say you can't legislate morality. Well, it's done every single day. It just depends on whose morality it is. I just happen to be Christian. I think anybody that has any religion should stand for what they believe in."
For her part, Coleman doesn't run from her union label or her work in state government.
"Linda oversaw 93,000 state employees as Director of State Personnel, she knows the working families of this state and she has fought for them every day of her career," reads her campaign biography.
Whoever becomes lieutenant governor, their opportunities for executive action are limited. The office doesn't directly oversee any state agency, although it does assume all the powers of governor any time the sitting governor leaves the state. In practice over the past four years, that has meant Dalton signed the occasional weather-related executive order.
As president of the Senate, the post has little power. Lawmakers stripped the office of its ability to appoint Senate committees in the 1980s when Republican Jim Gardner found himself presiding over a chamber controlled by Democrats. The office further lost influence during the past legislative session when Senate leaders appointed a parliamentarian to help make decisions on contested rulings.
The lieutenant governor only votes on legislation in case of a tie in the Senate. The last time that happened was seven years ago, when then-Lt. Gov Bev Perdue cast the vote that created the state lottery.
The most direct influence the lieutenant governor has on governance may come through service on boards such as the state school board. And there is little doubt that Coleman and Forest would add dramatically difference voices to that group.
"We need a revolution in education," Forest told the group of at Jones Cafe. He won nods when he said that money spent on central bureaucracy should be shifted to local school districts.
"Oversight and administration should start in the classroom," Forest said. At the same time, he said, salaries for public school teachers and community college instructors need to go up.
"They're not mutually exclusive," Forest said. The challenge, he said, is making the classroom a priority.
Forest said the Republican budget put together by lawmakers last year provides enough for education.
"There were no draconian cuts, it didn't send education back to the dark ages."
Lawmakers overrode Gov. Perdue's veto of the budget, but Democrats have campaigned on claims that the GOP-crafted spending plan put too little into public education.
Forest argues that keeping taxes low will grow the economy, which will in turn grown the amount of state revenue available for public schools.
By contrast, Coleman told supporters that the Republican budget would sap North Carolina's ability to grow the economy. Businesses relocate and stay here to take advantage of a well-educated workforce, she said.
"We owe so much of our progress to education, and that's abundantly clear," she said.
After her meeting broke up, Coleman said she would be a booster of the state's public schools, and she painted Forest as a charter school backer who would sap public funding for K-12.
Forest says he is "a fan" or charter schools but doesn't see them as a permanent solution to problems in the public schools. Rather, he said, local school systems should replicate the successes found in charters, magnet schools and other innovative schools.