RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK. N.C. — After months of trading barbs through ads and intermediaries, Republican Pat McCrory and Democrat Walter Dalton went toe-to-toe Wednesday night to debate issues from education spending to taxes to natural gas drilling.
The debate was the first of three between the two top gubernatorial candidates before the Nov. 6 election.
A WRAL News poll released Tuesday shows McCrory, a former Charlotte governor, leading Lt. Gov. Dalton by a 51 to 39 percent margin. Libertarian candidate Barbara Howe had 3 percent support, and 7 percent of voters remain undecided.
Trying to close that gap, Dalton went on the attack, accusing McCrory of taking pay raises in Charlotte during the economic meltdown and shilling for natural gas companies.
McCrory sidestepped the jabs, focusing on his plans to reform state government and the public school system. He also counter-punched at Dalton, calling one of his online ads "inexcusable" for accusing McCrory of being insensitive to blacks.
Both candidates stuck to themes they have sounded off on for months on the campaign trail and television ads. Dalton pushed his jobs plan that is heavy on education spending and worker training, while McCrory said taxes need to be cut to make North Carolina competitive.
"He would have the biggest corporations paying no tax in North Carolina," Dalton said. "He would reallocate (the tax burden) and shift it to the middle class, working families and our senior citizens on fixed incomes, and I don't think that's going to create any jobs whatsoever."
"There's only one person up here who's proposed new taxes, and that the lieutenant governor, along with Gov. (Beverly) Perdue," McCrory responded, citing their call for extending a temporary sales tax increase to protect public schools from budget cuts.
Education spending also brought retorts from both candidates. After McCrory discussed his plan to focus resources on getting students to read at grade level before the fourth grade, Dalton noted that he supported cuts Republican lawmakers made to North Carolina's early childhood education programs.
McCrory shot back that Dalton didn't stand in the way of school spending cuts during his first two years as lieutenant governor, when Democrats controlled the General Assembly, or as a state senator.
"The rhetoric does not match the real facts," he said. "The whole debate (in recent years) was about the budget and not results, and that's what we need to start talking about.
The sharpest words between the candidates came when discussing an ad the Dalton campaign posted online last week in which several black politicians and others saying McCrory is insensitive to them.
"It was the low point of North Carolina politics," McCrory said. "I treat people as individuals, not as monolithic groups."
Dalton said the ad was in response to a McCrory ad that used a former Wilson County sheriff who lost in a racially charged election.
"If he finds this offensive, it's because he has offended," he said.