Raleigh, N.C. — Republican Pat McCrory and Democrat Walter Dalton could not move past questions that have dogged their respective campaigns as they met for a second debate Tuesday night.
Many of the answers delivered at UNC-TV's studios in Research Triangle Park were similar to lines delivered in the first debate two weeks ago. That first debate appears to have had little impact on the polls, which constantly show Dalton trailing by 10 to 12 percentage points.
Asked about that commanding lead during the debate, McCrory said he didn't take it for granted.
"I don't trust the polls. We're going to work until the polls close on November 6th," he said.
Going into Tuesday's debate, political observers generally agreed that McCrory's foremost job was to avoid a gaffe that would somehow change the campaign's narrative. But he had room to improve his position.
"Pat (McCrory) can help himself with a few specifics," said Duke University economist and political science professor Mike Munger. "If he gives specific answers to even a few questions, then the vague platitudes on the big questions won't be so noticeable."
McCrory's biggest opportunity to do that during the debate was on a tax question. McCrory says that he wants to lower the income tax, corporate tax rate and perhaps the gas tax. Dalton challenged that plan.
"Where is the beef? Where is he going to find the $11 billion to do that," Dalton asked. The Democrat said McCrory would have to raise sales taxes in order to accomplish all that.
McCrory said Dalton's sales tax assertion was misleading.
"The only person who has asked for a sales tax increase are Beverly Perdue and Walter Dalton," McCrory said, pointing to fact checks of Dalton's claim by media outlets.
However, McCrory didn't describe how he would offset the tax cuts he proposes.
Asked after the debate how he would pay for those tax cuts, McCrory answered, "I've discussed that with several reporters," saying that he'd be glad to do so again.
Pressed on the question, "Well again, I've described that before and I'll describe it again one-on-one at another time."
Asked a third time if he could answer the question, McCrory walked away saying, "I have answered the question."
Jack Hawke, an adviser to the McCrory campaign who was on hand for the debate, said that McCrory has outlined goals for reducing tax rates.
"If you give every single detail of a tax plan, how is that a bipartisan, bringing people together?" Hawke said. McCrory wants to work with his political opposition. "You can't tell them what you're going to do. You have to bring them to the table and discuss, to come to the conclusions of what you're ultimately going to do."
That lack of response drew criticism from Democrats.
"I think we saw Pat McCrory spend an hour on TV and not answer a single question," said Andrew Whalen, a consultant and former executive director of the North Carolina Democratic Party.
But Hawke said offering specifics wouldn't do McCrory, or the state, much good in the long run.
"You're demanding the details. You're demanding he put together something that will be dead on arrival," Hawke said.
Meanwhile, Dalton struggled to at once define himself as an experienced hand and as someone who hasn't had his hand on the levers of power.
On a question about eliminating government waste, Dalton said he agreed with McCrory that North Carolina needed eliminate redundant boards and commissions.
"I'm glad he agrees with that. The question is why hasn't he done anything about it," McCrory said. "He was the head of the Senate budget committee, he was the lieutenant governor the last four years. He had an opportunity to show leadership to do something about something that's very, very obvious ... Real leadership would have already dealt with that."
Asked after the debate how he reconciled his experience with his lack of control, Dalton compared his time in state government to a college sports player "coming out and going to the pros. Look at what I did in college, but let me get on the pro team and see how it works."
Asked if he was calling the General Assembly "college," Dalton said no, he was just making an analogy.
"There is a difference in the experience that prepares you for a position and actually taking the position itself," he said.
Dalton and McCrory will face off one more time during a debate on Oct. 24 sponsored by WRAL, North Carolina Wesleyan College and the Rocky Mount Area Chamber of Commerce.