Undecided GOP voters looking for answers in first Senate debate

04/21/2014 8:18 PM

04/23/2014 7:03 PM

Stephen Benton knows what he wants in a U.S. Senate candidate, but so far, he can’t find it.

The 48-year-old Republican wants to hear ardent support for gun rights and a tough stance against legal status for immigrants who are illegally in the country.

He’s looking to the first GOP debate to help him find the right candidate. “I have no favorite candidate,” the Raleigh software engineer said. The debate “could be very important, depending on how they answer.”

Republicans such as Benton dominate the U.S. Senate race in North Carolina, where roughly one-third of voters remain undecided in a contest to challenge Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan that is drawing national attention. No candidate, despite months of campaigning and millions of dollars spent, has galvanized the voters, putting more emphasis than normal on a series of three televised debates that start this week.

“With the few weeks we have left and all of them are pretty ideologically similar to each other ... it’s kind of an open game because it’s so undecided right now,” said Michael Bitzer, a state political expert at Catawba College.

The first debate Tuesday, sponsored by The (Raleigh) News & Observer, Charlotte Observer and Time Warner Cable News, will reach a statewide audience and comes two days before early voting begins. The second debate follows Wednesday, hosted by WRAL-TV in Raleigh, and a final UNC-TV debate is set for Monday.

The focus for all three events, political observers say, is House Speaker Thom Tillis, the candidate backed by the Republican establishment, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Republican strategist Karl Rove.

Tillis leads his seven rivals in fundraising and in the polls, but he can’t seem to get the 40 percent needed to avoid a July 15 runoff. The debates also come the week after Democrats hit Tillis with attack ads detailing a sex scandal in his legislative office involving two top staffers who had extramarital affairs with lobbyists and the nearly $20,000 severance payments he authorized.

Tillis needs to deflect punches

The TV and radio ads – which prompted Tillis to replace his campaign’s commercial with a rebuttal spot – come after other Republican candidates began questioning his character.

“It will be interesting to see how everybody goes about dealing with Tillis – whether it becomes a piling-on-Tillis session, which I think is a fairly likely scenario,” Andy Taylor, a political watcher at N.C. State University, said of the debates.

David McLennan, a political science professor at William Peace University in Raleigh, put it more bluntly. “It’s sort of like watching a prize fight – who can score the most in their attacks on Thom Tillis,” he said.

The challenge for Tillis is to respond to the claims and show he can deflect a punch. “He’s got to be able to send a signal that he’s the best one to beat Kay Hagan,” Bitzer said.

Either way, the political observers said, the other three candidates in the first debate – Cary obstetrician and tea party activist Greg Brannon, Charlotte pastor Mark Harris and Wilkesboro nurse Heather Grant – are looking to establish themselves. All are first-time political candidates seeking to court Republicans who identify with the tea party.

“I think really their goal is to be in a runoff with Tillis,” Taylor said. “So you’ve got to try to differentiate yourself from Tillis, undermine Tillis’ support so he can be under 40 percent, but do so in a deft enough way that you emerge as the alternative.”

Voters want details

On the issues, the immigration question, as well as discussions of the Common Core education standards, federal debt, guns and the health care law, are major points voters are looking to hear addressed during the debate. The topics emerged from a list of hundreds submitted by voters who plan to attend the 7 p.m. event at Davidson College.

Elizabeth Edwards, a 27-year-old Republican from Salisbury, wants the candidates to address the federal deficit and government spending.

“I think the fiscal problems that we have going on in our nation right now are obviously a big issue,” she said. “I think we need to get our wallet back in order. ... I want to make sure the person I vote for doesn’t bend to political pressure.”

Edwards said she knows which candidate she supports but acknowledges the unsettled nature of the race. “I don’t know how this election is going to turn up,” she said. “Whoever (wins), obviously I will support the Republican nominee, but whoever it is, they need to know that (issue) is important.”

Benton, who is still looking for his candidate, feels the same way. He’s tried for weeks to do his homework on the candidates to determine where they stand on his issues. In the debate, he said, he wants specifics.

“It’s hard to get the answers you want to hear, whether they agree with you or not,” he said. “They should own it. Don’t get wishy washy with it.”

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