Scott Mooneyham: Dalton comes out swinging in N.C. debate
RALEIGH - Picking out the underdog from the frontrunner wasn't too difficult during Wednesday night's gubernatorial debate.
Democratic Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, behind in the polls and behind in the money chase, went on the attack. Republican Pat McCrory, hoping to ride out his advantage for another month, largely laid back and tried to appear above partisan fray.
Dalton snapped at McCrory about tax reform talk that the former said would result in a tax increase on the middle class; he complained about the Charlotte mayor's refusal to release his tax returns, comparing it to an incomplete job resume; he didn't back away from a campaign Internet video which claimed that McCrory failed to understand the plight of African-Americans.
It wasn't clear whether taking the aggressive tack would help or hurt.
Political candidates like to appear forceful and in charge. (On this same night, President Barack Obama would be accused of not showing those characteristics in his debate with Republican challenger Mitt Romney.)
With an opportunity for free air time, Dalton wanted to try to put McCrory on the defensive. "He didn't like that I brought up some things that he didn't want to talk about," Dalton said afterward.
Candidates taking on the aggressor role have to walk a fine line, though. No one wants to be seen as a bully.
Asked after the debate whether if it had taken on a nasty tone, Dalton said he would let us pundits decide.
One pundit's take: Dalton certainly served notice that he isn't going to just look for political manna from heaven to try to change the dynamics of the race.
That doesn't mean he has the ability to change them, or that anything he can do in the two remaining debates will change them.
Unlike that presidential debate, a far smaller slice of voters watch these gubernatorial debates.
McCrory's tactics also may pay dividends, and he is hardly ill-at-ease in these events.
At one point, as the two were discussing the race-related Web video, which was sparked by the McCrory campaign's use of a former sheriff who had blamed race for his loss of an election, the Republican shook his head.
"It's a sad commentary," McCrory said.
You can afford to be the guy who laments the nastiness of partisan politics when polls show you with a hefty lead.
It's who McCrory has been in the brilliant warehouse TV ads that portray him as a modern consensus-builder. It's who he has been on the campaign trail while talking about fixing what's wrong with state government.
He was that person again Wednesday night, discussing dismantling the "good ol' boy, good ol' girl network" (Gov. Beverly Perdue is a girl, you know) in North Carolina.
Dalton, in those two remaining debates, will try to prove that isn't who McCrory will be as governor.
McCrory will try to make the case this his 14 years as Charlotte mayor shows that is exactly who he is.
And more fireworks may ensue.
Scott Mooneyham writes about state government for Capitol Press Association.