Opinion: Daily Journal

’04 Gubernatorial Preview, Pt. 2

RALEIGH – Yesterday, I observed that Gov. Mike Easley’s signal earlier this month of an intention to run for reelection in 2004 was both a troubling sign of early trouble in his administration as well as necessary to preserve the governor’s power pull regardless of whether he ultimately decides to run.

Easley’s candidacy and his prospects are the only uncertainties here. Rarely has North Carolina had as many top-drawer candidates of both parties who could credibly run for governor as can be seen on the political landscape today. Even if Easley does decide to run again, at least some of the state’s leading Democrats may consider a primary challenge, particularly if his numbers get weaker and his hand on the rudder more unstable.

Here are, in no particular order, possible aspirants for the office:

Democrats

• State Treasurer Richard Moore. He is a candidate out of central casting who is obviously eyeing the top slot. Few candidates are better suited for television and for raising the sums of money needed to be there. A former state legislator and Cabinet secretary under Gov. Jim Hunt, Moore is making waves for reforming his office after a long tenure by conservative Democrat Harlan Boyles. Not all the headlines are possible – but they are headlines.

• Attorney Gen. Roy Cooper. Long regarded as a thoughtful leader in the state legislature, Cooper made the jump to statewide office in 2000. Perhaps he rues his decision now, with a messy, sprawling, and growing political scandal in the Division of Motor Vehicles having been dropped unceremoniously into his lap. On the other hand, to take on corruption and special interests, even within one’s own party, is to establish a solid claim for higher office. He’s got a choice to make.

• Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue. Although the office she holds is not exactly a powerful or central one in state government – and this must be an adjustment for Perdue, who held key posts in the state senate for years – the lieutenant governor is making the most of it by touring the state incessantly, making friends, and earning free media. If anyone chooses the high-risk option of challenging Easley in a primary, it would mostlikely be Perdue, who owes him little and who has a separate and influential political base.

• Dan Blue and Erskine Bowles. One of these two gentlemen will not receive the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate. The other will probably (but not definitely) be defeated in the fall. As long as they acquit themselves well in 2002, I suspect either will be a live option for 2004, either for Senate (if Edwards is on the national ticket) or for governor. Blue would have far superior claim to statewide leadership, but Bowles is better liked among the establishment.

Republicans

• Former GOP nominee Richard Vinroot. As the mayor of Charlotte, Vinroot was a moderate conservative and a problem-solver who championed innovation. As a gubernatorial candidate, he hasn’t been able to project this image successfully. But the issues will be sharper in 2004, particularly in the areas of taxes and government spending, and no other Republican has the statewide name-recognition.

• House Minority Leader Leo Daughtry. Many Raleigh insiders thought Daughtry, a longtime legislator from Johnston County, had the inside track in the 2000 GOP primary and were shocked that he didn’t even make a runoff. But it is hard to run out of the legislature any more, and was particularly difficult for Daughtry given a lack of united support from House Republicans. He’ll have to have that to make another run at it. And a change of party control in the House would change everything.

• Senate Minority Leader Patrick Ballantine. Ditto. Ballantine is a rising star in the state party, but it is a challenge to make a big statewide splash when you head a small minority caucus. If districts are redrawn and the party totals get a lot closer in the Senate, voters will see a lot more of Ballantine – giving him the chance to introduce himself as a fresh and welcome face.

• U.S. Rep. Robin Hayes. Redistricting is also a factor for Hayes, the GOP nominee for governor in 1996. If North Carolina loses its new 13th seat in Congress to Utah, state Democrats have pledged to gerrymander Hayes out of his already competitive 8th district seat. It wouldn’t be at all surprising to see him run for statewide office as a result, bringing strong financial resources and appeal among social conservatives for a bid at either U.S. Senate or governor.

• U.S. Reps. Richard Burr and Walter Jones. Neither is seriously threatened by Democratic challenges at this point, but both might be tempted to run for statewide office if the prospects looked good. However, I sense that U.S. Senate would be their choice, if it were available, as both seem to be in their element as Washington lawmakers, though Jones spent several years in the state legislature as a Democrat.

A Few Surprises

• For the Democrats, surprise candidates might include Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, who is selling better on the stump than her current position in the 2002 Senate race would suggest; U.S. Rep. Bobby Etheridge, whose Eastern NC district isn’t really as safe as many think; and State Sen. Wib Gulley of Durham (if party liberals come to the conclusion that they need a Nader-like scare of the Democratic Party).

• For the Republicans, surprise candidates might include former Raleigh Mayor Paul Coble, Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory (if his path to Congress continues to be blocked by U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick), and Rep. Connie Wilson of Charlotte, should she move into a top leadership position after a GOP takeover of the N.C. House. Okay, kinda speculative, but stranger things have happened.