Research Triangle Park, N.C. — With four weeks to go until Election Day, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and his Democratic challenger, Attorney General Roy Cooper, engaged in their first debate in four months Tuesday night, exchanging blows on issues from House Bill 2 to the State Crime Lab to voter ID.
Both candidates slugged furiously during the fast-paced, hour-long debate, which was sponsored by the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters Educational Foundation, sticking to their campaign talking points as much as possible while delivering one-liners they hoped would score with voters.
McCrory continued to stand steadfastly behind House Bill 2, the controversial law on LGBT rights, blaming Charlotte officials and Cooper for trying to push a "major change in culture" on people that forced the state to respond in an effort to stand up for people's right to privacy.
"What planet are you on?" Cooper asked McCrory, saying the law has cost the state jobs and economic investment and was unnecessary. "We've got to get this law repealed. We've got to quit blaming it on other people."
McCrory said Cooper wants to focus the debate on House Bill 2 to distract from McCrory's record on the economy, which he has dubbed the "Carolina Comeback."
"He wants to cover up the tremendous progress we've made in this economy," the governor said, citing lower unemployment, lower taxes and new jobs during his four-year term.
Cooper responded by arguing that the tax cuts benefited businesses and the wealthy and that stagnant wages mean most North Carolinians are working longer and harder for less money.
The two men disputed each other's statistics throughout the debate, with Cooper saying McCrory isn't being honest about his record and the governor comparing Cooper to former Democratic U.S. Sen. John Edwards, who was accused but later acquitted of using campaign funds to hide his pregnant mistress during his short-lived 2008 presidential campaign.
McCrory has hit Cooper hard on the campaign trail over testing backlogs in the State Crime Lab, which Cooper oversees as attorney general.
"The governor's job is a huge job," McCrory said Tuesday. "If you can't handle the crime lab after 14 or 16 years, how are you going to handle all of state government?"
Cooper defended his record, saying he worked to clear a backlog of rape kits early in his tenure and improve evidence analysis. He also struck back at McCrory, saying Charlotte's crime lab destroyed hundreds of rape kits while McCrory was mayor.
Cooper also criticized the passage this summer of a law exempting video recorded by police body cameras and dashboard cameras from the state's public records laws. He said more transparency is needed to improve the relationship between law enforcement and some communities statewide "who feel targeted, and they yearn to be heard, and they yearn for respect." McCrory said the law takes politics out of the decision of publicly releasing sometimes controversial videos.
The policing issue elicited a question from moderator Chuck Todd of NBC News about the Black Lives Matter movement.
"I think all lives should matter," McCrory responded. "We should value every single human life, but we do have to recognize the anger that communities have with how they interact with law enforcement."
Both candidates staked out familiar positions on the state's voter ID law, which a federal court found unconstitutional, and the Affordable Care Act and its related Medicaid expansion, which North Carolina lawmakers have blocked.
Cooper called it "shameful" for McCrory and Republican legislative leaders to keep pushing for voter ID and restrictions on early voting and same-day registration, while McCrory challenged Cooper to drop his state health insurance and sign up for a plan on the HealthCare.gov marketplace if he likes "Obamacare" so much.
Todd also questioned the candidates on their support of their respective presidential nominees, with the controversy over Republican Donald Trump's decade-old comments about groping women still roiling the campaign.
"Sometimes, when I see the presidential candidate Mr. Trump, he needs to have his mouth washed out with soap," McCrory said, adding that Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton also should face the same fate for lying about the destruction of emails she sent and received as secretary of state. "We have some character issues among the two presidential candidates."
"It's hard to believe that Gov. McCrory continues to support a presidential candidate who condones sexual assault," Cooper responded. "Gov. McCrory and Donald Trump are a lot alike. They both have trouble with the facts, and they both engage in divisive rhetoric. It's not good for our state. It's not good for our country."
Cooper closed by saying people nationwide now question, "What in the world is going on in North Carolina?" He said he can restore the state's reputation by building up its schools and attracting well-paid jobs.
McCrory responded by again pointing at his economic record. "This is leadership like we've never seen," he said, "and it's leadership we need to continue in North Carolina."