GREENVILLE, N.C. — Patrick Ballantine began his general election campaign for governor Tuesday by trying to energize Republican voters and make inroads with conservative Democrats.
Ballantine started a two-day, eight-city air tour with stops in four key eastern cities that incumbent Dem. Mike Easley won handily in 2000 over Richard Vinroot.
Speaking to supporters at a Greenville barbecue restaurant, Ballantine said it will take a lot of work and discipline to win in November.
"We're going to stand on our conservative principles, and do it with a smile," he said to nearly 100 boosters at Parker's Barbecue.
The former Senate minority leader said he should not be the choice of eastern voters just because he's from Wilmington.
"I know the people in the East," he said. "I share your conservative values."
Like most eastern counties, Democrats outnumber Republicans in voter registration in Pitt County and still hold most local elected positions. But many white Democrats have sided with GOP candidates such as Jesse Helms and George W. Bush in federal races, reflecting their dissatisfaction with the direction of the national party.
Ballantine won more than two dozen eastern counties in last week's primary, including Pitt.
In order to be competitive in November, Ballantine will have to persuade Democrats like Donnie Smith, 53, of Chocowinity to pick him over Easley, who is from Nash County and has defined himself as a fiscal conservative.
"I haven't made up my mind," Smith said after Ballantine shook his hand in between bites of a pork plate. "He'd look to be a fine gentleman to me."
Smith complained that the Department of Transportation has not widened U.S. Highway 17 South to South Carolina or N.C. Highway 33 between Chocowinity and Greenville.
Ballantine later mentioned the highway patchwork in eastern North Carolina.
"I'm from Wilmington, and you can't get there from here," Ballantine said during a speech at the other side of the restaurant. If elected, "We're going to build better roads in eastern North Carolina."
Ballantine was the leading vote-getter in last week's primary but received less than 40 percent of the ballots cast, setting up a runoff next month with Richard Vinroot, who finished second.
Vinroot, however, stunned GOP leaders by announcing last week he would not seek a runoff.
"What a difference a week makes," Ballantine said earlier Tuesday after he got off the campaign's chartered jet at Pitt-Greenville Airport, completing a flight from Manteo. "The events of last week will not long be forgotten in North Carolina politics."
Without a primary, Ballantine can focus on battling Easley, who has a wide advantage in fund-raising and in polls before the primary.
Ballantine said he would attempt to run a positive campaign but shot back Tuesday at Easley. The governor's campaign accused Ballantine for approving state budgets in the late 1990s that led to the state's financial troubles earlier this decade.
"The governor is very good at the blame game," said Ballantine, who also made a stop in Fayetteville on Tuesday. "He blamed Jim Hunt when he first took office. Then he blamed (President) Bush, and now he's blaming me.
"We need to quit pointing the finger and talk about our philosophy of government."
Ballantine, who resigned from the state Senate in April, said he would have supported a bond package approved by the General Assembly this month that will help build a new heart and stroke center at East Carolina University.
Easley still must decide whether to sign the bill that would allow the state to borrow $468 million, including $310 million this year. Some of Ballantine's former colleagues voted against it because the debt wouldn't require a statewide referendum.
"The biggest issue in eastern North Carolina is creating a better business climate," Ballantine said.
ECU is an economic engine to develop high-paying jobs, Ballantine said. But the state needs to keep monitoring its debt load closely.
Easley had a light schedule this week and decided against attending the Democratic National Convention in Boston so he could examine bills left on his desk when the legislative session adjourned.