Opinion: Daily Journal

Judging The Last Gubernatorial Debate

RALEIGH – The last televised debate in the North Carolina governor’s race has come and gone – with a strong emphasis on the gone.

Thank goodness.

First of all, the production itself – broadcast statewide but produced at WTVI-TV in Charlotte – was horrible. There were embarrassing technical flaws, odd and poorly enforced rules, and befuddled moderators. Some of the questions were insipid, and in the so-called “lightning round” there was obviously not enough time to provide meaningful answers.

Second, no one really tried to make news. Televised gubernatorial debates will never draw the mass audience we’ve seen in the presidential and vice-presidential debates this year. The real goal is to plant a message in subsequent news coverage of the debate. The hosts should want to make news, to justify the time and expense of putting on the show. And in a tight race like the 2008 contest, all of the candidates should want to make news in order to claim a few more undecided votes or trying to peel away leaners from an opponent.

But after watching the WSOC/WTVI debate, it would be hard for even the most creative reporter to write a compelling story about it. As usual, Pat McCrory seemed comfortable and confident, seeking to tap into voter disaffection with the status quo while laughing off Beverly Perdue’s now-familiar attacks. But he didn’t introduce any new themes or attacks of his own. For her part, Perdue did a good job communicating directly to the viewing audience, and kept the self-reverential comments in check, but I expected her to bring some fresh material. She didn’t even repeat the themes of her latest TV ads, on landfills, Charlotte taxes, or tying McCrory to Bush. Again, she didn’t make any real news. Perhaps she didn’t think she had to.

The candidate who gained the most from the evening was, naturally, Libertarian candidate Mike Munger. With a statewide audience and a prime spot between McCrory and Perdue on the stage, Munger handled most of the questions with aplomb, and was the only one to discuss the insidious effects of North Carolina’s price-gouging law on the recent gas shortages. It was the highest point of his gubernatorial campaign to date.

Should have smiled more, though.

As for the other two, Wednesday night’s debate essentially became a platform for them to restate the core messages of their respective campaigns:

Pat McCrory: He is a culture warrior – but not of the Pat Buchanan sort. Rather, McCrory is running against the ruling culture of Raleigh. He used the term many times during the debate, referring to a “culture of corruption,” a “culture of secrecy,” a “culture of arrogance,” and “a culture of wasteful spending,” among others, while calling for a “culture of customer service” in state government. McCrory uses his tenure as mayor to indicate that he can work across party lines and make tough decisions. Ideologically, he’s running as a moderate conservative – as have all the past GOP candidates for governor, except perhaps Robin Hayes – who promises to restrain spending, cut taxes, reform the transportation system, and promote market-based solutions to health care. (Interestingly, while McCrory has never endorsed the full-fledged voucher program Perdue has been running against, I think he had his best moment of the night when, in response to her attack, he questioned why anyone would be against extending school choice to a Down’s Syndrome child.)

Beverly Perdue: She is a candidate of the state’s Democratic mainstream, channeling Jim Hunt, while promising to excise some of the worst excesses of the Easley administration. It was noticeable, throughout the debate, how often she referred to the governor as “being in charge” of this or that – a telling sign of how she thinks government should operate (Munger pointed it out with regard to education). Perdue’s emphasis on “green-collar jobs” reflects what’s in vogue among Democratic candidates across the country, as is her advocacy of more preschool and college spending.

The governor’s race appears to be a tossup right now – which is nothing short of amazing, given how poorly the Republican candidates for president and U.S. Senate are faring in North Carolina. The last three weeks of broadcast ads, mailings, and public events will settle the matter. This last debate did not.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.