KINSTON Keith King pushed aside a half-eaten plate of barbecue, slaw and hushpuppies. He needed to make a point. Hagan, he said with conviction, is set to be beat.
For the Republicans gathered last week for a county convention at Kings Restaurant, a landmark in Eastern North Carolina famous for its pig in a puppy sandwich, the sentiment was universal.
What King and most of those in the room didnt know is which Republican candidate is the best challenger for Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan. I do not have a favorite, said King, a former Lenoir County GOP chairman running for school board. I need to hear more.
Six weeks before early voting begins for the May 6 primary, the race remains undefined. Even the most ardent Republican voters, like 48-year-old King, remain ambivalent in one of the nations most closely watched races.
What qualities make for the best candidate also remains a matter of debate. But in recent interviews with dozens of Republican voters, its clear that the gridlock in Washington, reflected in the government shutdown and health care debates, left an impression.
Many voters are looking at each candidates ideology more than his or her stance on the particular issues. A candidates conservative strength even competes with the much-hyped electability factor.
Its all about being conservative, King said at the Lenoir County GOP convention. I actually wish there was a Conservative Party.
Roger Farina, 47, made a similar point ahead of his barbecue precinct meeting at the recent Harnett County GOP convention. Its not just winning, said Farina, who is retired from the Army. Its not just beating Hagan. Its going up there and doing the right thing.
He, too, is undecided about which Republican candidate fits that mold. Nobodys hooked me yet, he said.
The unsettled nature of the race, even among Republican activists, reflects the low-key nature of the campaign to date.
Only one candidate House Speaker Thom Tillis of Cornelius is airing TV ads, and the campaigns reach is limited. The other candidates are struggling to connect with voters on a broad level, instead opting for the circuit of local Republican and tea party events that draw crowds in the dozens.
The races underachieved potential is visible in polling released lastweek. A plurality of Republican primary voters 36 percent are undecided, according to Public Policy Polling, a Raleigh-based Democratic survey firm tracking the race. A poll from GOP firm American Insights put the number at more than half.
The fact that 55 percent of Republican voters are this undecided this close to the primary means this primary is truly anybodys guess on where it can go, said Matthew Faraci, the executive director at American Insights, a Raleigh-based outfit.
Tillis, whose stature and campaign cash were expected to vault him easily to front-runner status, is instead deadlocked at the top with first-time candidate Greg Brannon, a Cary obstetrician. And little-known Wilkesboro nurse Heather Grant, who like Brannon is posing as a Tillis alternative, finds herself within the polling margins for the top spot.
Any of them can make the argument they are the better candidate to challenge Hagan in November, the early numbers show.
Hammered by outside groups for her support of the federal health care law and President Barack Obama, the first-term senator is essentially tied with all eight Republican challengers in the March survey from PPP, even those who are barely mounting a campaign. Her vulnerability is confirmed in other recent surveys that put her approval rating in negative territory.
I think the Republican primary voter wants to beat Hagan in the worst possible way, said Republican media strategist Marc Rotterman. So I think they will coalesce around someone who they believe has the best chance to defeat her.
Gridlock looms over race
As the conversation begins about which candidate can lead the party, most Republican voters are focused on three challengers: Tillis, Brannon and Charlotte pastor Mark Harris.
So far the differences among them are more stylistic.
Tillis is taking more moderate stances on issues and touting his record of accomplishment in the state legislature. Brannon is reaching for conservatives who identify with the tea party, talking about a return to limited constitutional powers. Harris is trying to find a middle ground, though he is emphasizing values, which appeals to his base in the evangelical community.
Without mentioning the government shutdown, Republican voters are still split on the question of compromise when it comes to Washingtons partisanship.
Im looking for the candidate that is willing to compromise when its for the greater good, said Harnett County GOP Chairwoman Maggie Sandrock, who must remain neutral in the race. You can follow your base only so much. We have to move forward; we cant keep doing this.
Standing near Sandrock at the recent Harnett County GOP convention in Lillington, Gorgon Springle echoed the sentiment.
We need a candidate who is not so far to the right that he cant talk to liberals, said Springle, a 68-year-old retiree and county commissioner who is leaning toward Tillis. What Ive seen in the legislature and in Washington, people have stuck to their beliefs so much that they cant see whats best for their country.
Others in the room took a different lesson from what they see on Capitol Hill. Joey Powell, a 54-year-old teacher from Erwin, considers himself a no-compromise voter. Hes undecided in the race
We just need (a candidate) to stand firm and take our country back for our values, he said. I believe in the history of our Founding Fathers, and many of us believe weve strayed too far from it.
Later that day, two hours east in Greenville, the Pitt County Republican Party opened its convention with a prayer to God to return the country to you and run campaigns that will glorify you.
The candidates are trying to win voters in the rural regions of Eastern North Carolina where Democrats still outnumber Republicans but all trend conservative.
Sitting at the front of the Pitt convention room, retiree Wayne Faulker said he is leaning toward Harris, but his wife, Becky, remains undecided between Brannon and Harris.
She said she will pick a candidate with character and integrity that will not cut our legs out from underneath of us.
Whit Haney, a Pitt County GOP vice chairman, said the voters watching the race are not taking the decision lightly. And that means the race may remain tough to read until the end. He said he expects Republican voters to wait until close to the primary date to make sure they pick the best one.
There are so many candidates, and each has their own strength, the 57-year-old pharmacist said. And we want to be very discerning. We dont want to make a mistake.
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