RALEIGH — Going into Wednesday night’s presidential and gubernatorial debates, both Republican Mitt Romney and Democrat Walter Dalton needed to rattle the frontrunners in their respective races. Romney accomplished the task. Dalton didn’t.
Let’s start with the presidential race. The last two weeks of September were rough ones for Romney. President Barack Obama left his nominating convention in Charlotte in early September with a solid bounce in the polls. Republicans expected the bounce to recede to the average 2-3 point lead that the president had enjoyed before the conventions. It didn’t. In fact, due to Romney mistakes conveyed to voters by several days of heavy, negative media coverage sustained and even strengthened President Obama’s post-convention lead.
Some analysts began saying that the presidential race was over. Some Republican operatives began the usual cynical practice of distancing themselves from what appeared to be a failing campaign.
But the postmortems were premature. Most modern pollsters don’t just ask likely voters which candidate they support and leave it at that. They also ask voters unsure about their preferences whether they “lean” to one or the other candidate. Leaners may only constitute a few percentage points of the electorate, but they can make head-to-head poll results look more conclusive than they really are. A month out, some of these leaners are still willing to change their minds. Others may not really end up voting, after all.
During their first presidential debate, Mitt Romney outperformed Barack Obama on multiple fronts: substance, style, and body language. Obama looked tired, uninterested, and even annoyed at some of the questions. The post-debate polls suggest that Romney succeeded in juicing up his base a bit and pulling a few Obama leaners back in his direction. What was a solid Obama lead in the late-September national polls now looks like a close contest again.
Contrast this performance with that of Walter Dalton. Like Romney, Dalton was fighting the perception that the race had gotten away from him. Like Romney, he needed both to look like a credible executive and to challenge the credibility of his opponent.
While President Obama often looked as if he was underprepared for the presidential debate, Lt. Gov. Dalton was overprepared. His head was stuffed full of legislative accomplishments, political charges, and talking points that his team wanted him to work into the conversation. During the course of the hourlong debate, they all seemed to tumble out of his head like boxes out of a just-opened storage closet. The experience left him standing among piles of half-opened arguments, looking dazed, while Pat McCrory stood to the side, untouched and bemused.
The one time Dalton seemed to get under McCrory’s skin involved the case of a Wilson County sheriff, a Democrat, who has endorsed McCrory. The sheriff, Wayne Guy, says that he lost his recent bid for reelection because black voters opted for a black opponent in the Democratic primary. Dalton’s campaign released an online ad citing the Guy endorsement and statement as evidence that McCrory “just doesn’t understand the African-American experience in North Carolina.”
Dalton restated the criticism during the debate, prompting McCrory to mutter that the charge was “the low point of North Carolina politics.” That was quite an exaggeration, if McCrory’s meaning was that Dalton’s charge was despicable. We’ve all seen much worse. But in another sense, McCrory was correct. The propriety of the political opinions of a Democratic county sheriff is going to be pretty darn low on the priority list for anyone undecided about the North Carolina gubernatorial race.
A “gotcha” moment on a high-priority issue – say, taxes or education – would have helped Dalton much more. But fresh from advocating a sales-tax increase just months ago, Dalton will never be able to sell himself as the taxpayers’ champion. And the differences between the two candidates’ stated positions on education are neither stark nor scary.
Romney’s success may prove short-lived. There are two more debates to come, and perhaps other surprises. But at least he has had some success. So far, it’s 1-0 Romney and 1-0 McCrory.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and author of Our Best Foot Forward: An Investment Plan for North Carolina’s Economic Recovery.