Charlotte, N.C. — Pat McCrory was in his element Tuesday morning as he shook hands, hugged and back-slapped his way through a crowd of city officials.
"You've got me," Martha Currie, a town council member from the eastern North Carolina town of Leland, told the Republican candidate for governor after he spoke to the N.C. League of Municipalities' annual conference.
Currie, a former magistrate, said Gov. Bev Perdue and her fellow Democrats had broken faith with state workers and retirees.
"I have a son who has a college degree and who could not get a job," she said. He finally went to work in a county clerk's office for $26,000 and has only seen his salary climb by less than 4 percent over the last five years. "They have really been beaten down by this last administration."
City officials, state workers and eastern North Carolina all used to be reliable bases for the North Carolina Democrats. Currie's support for the Republican nominee goes a long way to explaining why Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton is struggling in his campaign to replace his fellow Democrat.
For 20 years, Democrats have controlled the North Carolina governor's mansion. Unless something unexpected or undetected happens in the two weeks before Election Day, that streak will end in January.
Perdue decided not to run for a second term late in January, setting Dalton and other would-be successors on a frantic primary path and scramble for campaign cash. Meanwhile, McCrory built on his strong 2008 run against Perdue and cleared the Republican field of credible challengers by show of fundraising force and dint of will that took him on the road over the past four years, meeting and greeting the GOP faithful.
As a result, McCrory carries a double-digit lead in virtually all public polls as he and Dalton get ready for their final televised debate Wednesday.
"He (McCrory) has articulated well that he is the go-to guy for economic issues," said Rebecca Klase, a political science professor at Greensboro College. While McCrory might lack some specifics, she said, he's had four years to build upon his record as mayor of the state's biggest city.
"The lieutenant governor's job is just not as highly visible of an office in this state, or even as highly influential," she said.
That notion is borne out by polls, which show voters don't have an unduly negative view of Dalton. Many just don't have an impression one way or the other despite his four years as the No. 2 executive branch official and six terms in the state senate.
Dalton has tried to combat this with a two-tiered approach. He has put out a series of detailed policy proposals, pitching plans for small business tax credits, work-sharing arrangements and expanding early college high schools.
"These plans are in stark contrast with the plans of my opponent, who really has no plan on this," Dalton said, transitioning from his education pitch to an attack on McCrory.
Dalton used part of his time on the stump to bash McCrory's lack of specifics and call into question his relationship with special interests, like his former employer Duke Energy.
In recent weeks, the Republican has brushed aside the accusations as "desperate" and characterized them as an attack on private sector employers. That strategy appears to have worked, as polls show little evidence that Dalton has managed to land an effective blow.
That makes Wednesday night's debate all the more important for Dalton. The two other Fall gubernatorial debates that were televised statewide fell on the same night as debates in the presidential contest.
Wednesday's debate will take place in front of a live audience at 7 p.m. in the Minges Auditorium at the Dunn Center for the Performing Arts on the campus of North Carolina Wesleyan College in Rocky Mount. The college, the Rocky Mount Area Chamber of Commerce and WRAL News will produce the debate.
Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at North Carolina State University, says this debate will be "vitally important" for Dalton, saying it's the first time he'll get the full advantage of the free media coverage.
Even if voters don't tune in directly, he said, "the coverage won't have to compete as much."
That said, Taylor was unsure what Dalton might say that would help him make up the 12 percentage points he trailed in the WRAL-Survey USA poll earlier this month.
Dalton worked to make up that ground in Charlotte Tuesday. After speaking to the League of Municipalities, he headed to an early voting location about 10 blocks away.
"Oh, yes. You're on our list," said one woman, who shook hands with Dalton before slipping into the no-campaigning zone around the poll.
Dressed in a shirt and tie and sporting sunglasses for the bright, clear day, Dalton reveled in the good weather.
Historically, Democrats turn out in greater numbers than Republicans during the in-person early voting period. Reports from the first few days of this year's early voting period suggest that trend is continuing.
"I'm encouraged by the early vote," Dalton said. "We're working it hard. He obviously has a lot of money. He's been out raising for four years, but I think I've got more friends."
Dalton is hoping one of those friends, President Barack Obama, helps him close the gap. Obama's re-election campaign continues to work on getting North Carolina Democrats to the polls, something that boosted Perdue past McCrory in 2008.
"I've seen very active, organized efforts on the part of the Obama get-out-the-vote operation," Klase said. "But I don't think it's going to be enough to put him (Dalton) over the top."
In the meantime, the two men continue to spar. Asked about a recently passed annexation law that restricts the ability of cities to bring new territory into their corporate limits, both men said the General Assembly went too far.
McCrory said the law represented a failure of state leaders to work with municipal governments.
"We've got to have more dialog and teamwork with the state government and cities," he said.
He quickly turned the conversation to a dig on Dalton, pointing to a bill Dalton sponsored in 2004 that requires local governments to pay billboard owners when a municipality orders a sign removed.
Dalton, who agrees with McCrory on annexation, said he's all for removing billboards but says property owners ought to be fairly compensated. Then, he got in his own dig.
"You know, his law firm represents the billboard industry," Dalton said, referencing Moore and Van Allen, where McCrory is a business consultant.
Political observers expect Dalton to stay on the attack Wednesday.
"He (Dalton) has very little to lose, so that actually might be liberating," Taylor said. "Particularly since he's not got the money to do much advertising, this is very much a last opportunity."