A fascinating election season that's just begun

Has there been a more interesting general election in this state since, say, the mid-20th century than the one raging right now? We've had some doozies – including the 1960 election that put John Kennedy in the White House and New South Gov. Terry Sanford in the governor's mansion. That was a big year for N.C. Democrats, who went for their party's choices for president, governor and U.S. senator (Everett Jordan) that fall. It was the last time Democrats won all three races the same day.

And there was the fascinating election in 1972 when North Carolina changed directions entirely, voting for a Republican president (Richard Nixon) as well as electing Republicans for governor (Jim Holshouser) and U.S. senator (Jesse Helms) for the first time in the 20th century. Richard Nixon wasn't thought to be in any trouble that year, but the campaigns for governor and senator were tight – and were decided late in the campaign when Nixon's coattails helped his party roll into office.

Now we've got another donnybrook on our hands – razor tight races with less than eight weeks to go in the races for president, governor and U.S. senator all over again.

And to just about everyone's surprise, all three of them appear to be tight – winnable for each candidate. What were the odds of this, say, a year ago? Zip.

Take the presidential race. John McCain was dead in the water a year ago. President Bush's popularity was dragging and a lot of Democrats were betting Hillary Clinton would be their nominee.

Now John McCain is the nominee against Democrat Barack Obama, who was coasting along confidently until McCain's selection of Sarah Palin for veep simply shook up the race and, at least in early polls, put the two running mighty close.

Meantime, N.C. Democrats were having a hard time coming up with a candidate willing to challenge Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole, regarded by some observers as a political rock star invulnerable to challenge. Some big names in the state party turned down the chance to run against her, and Democratic state Sen. Kay Hagan of Greensboro, having once turned down running for the Senate, was persuaded to get into the race. Then came a ton of money from an independent “527” political campaign and all of a sudden Dole and Hagan are in a barn-burner. (The close match so rattled The Wall Street Journal that it headlined a Friday story, “In North Carolina, Libby Dole Battles Foe, Own Party's Baggage.” Trouble is, it's Liddy, not Libby.)

And in the N.C. governor's race, Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory wasn't even doing the things that political strategists will tell you must be done at least a year in advance of a major run for office – such as rounding up commitments and money from your own party. It wasn't until late in the fall that word of McCrory's plans began to circulate, yet he ran one of the best Republican primary campaigns in recent memory to win the nomination outright and challenge Democratic Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue for the governorship.

The conventional forecast went this way at the start of the summer: Obama would make it close in North Carolina and run away with the election nationally because of a souring economy and Bush's unpopularity. Dole would have no trouble winning re-election because Republicans usually win federal races in this state. And Perdue would easily continue the Democratic hold over the governorship, having won all but three times since the turn of the 20th century.

But no: If the election were today, all three races might be decided on the thinnest of margins, with recent polls showing dramatically close contests and a closely split electorate.

The last 50 days of this election in North Carolina could become a gory battlefield of negative ads, goofy assertions and absurd claims that ought to repel every voter.

They won't, of course, because in North Carolina, candidates and voters alike fall for them every time. Brace yourself.