RALEIGH, N.C. — The gubernatorial debate between Gov. Mike Easley and Republican challenger Patrick Ballantine led to sharp criticism, dozens of disagreements and heated exchanges between the two candidates, particularly on taxes.
Most of the hour-long debate focused on state spending issues -- and when specific questions weren't about taxes or spending, the candidates steered them back to that.
Read a weblog from the debate
Read the debate transcript
The most pointed exchanges came when dealing with spending issues, with Ballantine characterizing himself as fiscally conservative, saying he could not envision a scenario in which he would raise taxes as governor. Easley said several times that he was forced by bad circumstances to make some decisions.
"He inherited a recession, just like George W. Bush did, but George Bush cut taxes ... Mike Easley raised taxes," Ballantine said. "He had the largest tax increase in North Carolina history."
But Easley said Ballantine was mischaracterizing his administration's spending during the past four years. Easley said that North Carolina taxes on companies were still lower than those in 48 other states and that the state was fifth in the country when it came to creating jobs.
"I don't need a lesson on cutting and balancing the budget from him or anybody else," Easley said. "There is no one who has sat in the governor's office since the Great Depression who's had to balance a budget and cut and bring fiscal discipline as much as I have."
On the issue of a state lottery, Ballantine said that as governor he would veto a lottery bill because it is bad policy. He said it would generate less than 1 percent of state revenues.
Easley, who supports a lottery for education costs, said that such a lottery would be guaranteed for education.
"Yeah, I can guarantee it," Easley said, responding to an e-mail question from a voter. "I want every penny going to the kids and not a dime to politicians."
During much of the debate, both men traded harsh barbs and disagreed on basic facts. At one point during a question about cigarette taxes, Ballantine claimed that Easley took money from a tobacco growers' trust fund for use in the state budget elsewhere.
"I think the dog ate your homework," Easley said. "I have never taken any money ... out of the Golden Leaf fund. That is court ordered to go into the fund."
Even though the men agreed on little, moderator David Crabtree ran through several issues quickly on which they did have answers in common: Both said there should not be a moratorium on executions, both did not support vouchers for private schools and both said they would support some toll roads in the state.
After the last debate's heated exchanges, an e-mailed question asked the candidates to say two things positive about each other.
Ballantine offered compliments on Easley's tough clemency decisions and said Easley "and his wife are not bad people."
Easley didn't even agree that Ballantine had given him two compliments.
"He hadn't gotten there yet. I heard something akin to 'You don't sweat much for a fat guy,' " Easley said, adding that he appreciated Ballantine's votes increasing teacher pay and that he thought Ballantine's wife, Lisa, was admirable.
Libertarian candidate Barbara Howe was not included in Friday's debate. Howe has filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission accusing WRAL of "viewpoint discrimination" by not allowing her to share the stage with Easley and Ballantine.
Howe showed up to Friday's debate at WRAL studios and spoke to station News Director John Harris outside.
"I'm a legally qualified candidate for governor and I think I should be included in the debate," Howe told Harris.
Howe was denied entrance into the building.
"At this stage of the campaign, we believe that voters are best served by a debate between candidates who, based on our news judgment, have a realistic chance of being elected," Harris said in a statement. "Ms. Howe has run for statewide office several times before and has never generated significant support at the ballot box. Should support for Ms. Howe and other Libertarians rise, we will certainly consider their inclusion in future debates."
In the 2000 governor's race, Howe received 42,000 votes -- which was just 1 percent.
The debate, which was taped at 2:30 p.m., will air on WRAL, Channel 5, at 7 p.m. Friday.
The WRAL NewsChannel, available on digital channel 5.2 and on digital cable channel 256, will replay the debate at 10 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday.