Can McCrory beat the odds?

There's a smile on the face and a spring in the step of longtime Republican strategist Jack Hawke these days. He's seen a lot of elections since his own hard-fought but unsuccessful campaigns for Congress 38 and 36 years ago. But these days he's wearing an occasional grin because his latest horse – Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory – is pushing Democratic Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue hard in the race for governor.

“The numbers look good,” he said the other day shortly before McCrory put in an appearance at a forum on government ethics in Raleigh. “They're spending a million dollars more than we are and we're right there in the race.”

The numbers do look good. It's a close race for an office Democrats usually win even as Republicans are winning presidential races and usually U.S. Senate seats, too.

The conventional wisdom at the start of this race – which came late last year for McCrory – was that Perdue would run away with it. She was, after all, the first woman to be elected lieutenant governor in North Carolina, and she had locked up a lot of the early money.

Democrats probably were encouraged when McCrory won the Republican primary in May. Why? Because candidates from Charlotte usually don't do well statewide in the general election – the main exceptions being Jim Martin, elected governor in 1984 and '88, and Supreme Court Chief Justice Sarah Parker.

No Charlotte curse

But in between there's a long list of candidates from Charlotte who haven't done well – former mayors Eddie Knox, Sue Myrick, Harvey Gantt and Richard Vinroot, as well as businessman Erskine Bowles – in elections for governor or Senate.

That has led to speculation that there's a Charlotte curse. I don't think there's a curse. I think Charlotteans simply haven't been the best candidates.

McCrory has a good shot at proving a Charlottean can win. He's doing well with the money he's been able to raise. He has good, simple ads.

And he has this: A lot of Democrats from the Charlotte region who back his candidacy because they like the way he worked as mayor – including support for a tax to finance mass transit, defending that tax successfully when conservatives sought to reverse it and even support for pro sports arenas that many in his own party opposed.

John Hood, president of the John Locke Foundation, wrote recently that not only is there no Charlotte curse, “there's more evidence for a Charlotte blessing.” McCrory's strong support from many Democrats and independents in Charlotte and the urban Triad may be key factors this fall.

Tom Jensen, the analyst for Public Policy Polling, a Democratic polling firm, also detects a potential shift in the way North Carolinians split their votes. While they usually go for the Republican candidate for president and the Democrat for governor, he says this year “there are an increasing number of voters planning to split their ticket the other way with votes for Barack Obama and Pat McCrory.”

Of those who've already made up their minds on both offices, he says, PPP polls show 41 percent are voting Republican and 38 percent Democratic. The remainder are splitting their ticket. About 62 percent of them favor John McCain and Perdue, while 38 percent are supporting Barack Obama and McCrory. Those numbers are meaningful because they show a significant increase, compared to previous years, in the number of voters who plan to vote Democratic for president and Republican for governor.

These “new age ticket splitters,” as Jensen calls them, are “disproportionately suburban, middle aged, and somewhat surprisingly female. They are also predictably heavy in the Charlotte metro area.”

The Perdue campaign is surely aware of these factors, as well as data that show a strong outpouring of new registrations of Democratic and unaffiliated voters statewide.

McCrory dangerous?

Perdue is campaigning hard to blunt McCrory's appeal. Her platform shows the pro-schools-and-jobs emphasis that N.C. voters prefer in their governors. She's focusing especially on McCrory's support for vouchers, which she says is dangerous to public schools. That charge must have stung the thin-skinned McCrory. He repudiated it at the ethics forum so vigorously he risked implanting in voters' minds the notion that “McCrory” and “danger” are related.

These are two seasoned campaigners and experienced public officials who have differing ideas about how to do things – though they apparently agree on things, too, such as keeping illegal immigrants out of community colleges, drilling somewhere offshore and finding more money for schools.

Perdue has moved to the right in hopes of attracting conservative votes, though her opposition to illegal immigrants in community colleges risks losing some Democrats she was counting on to help her.

Still, recent N.C. political history says she should win. If money talks the way it usually does, she'll move into the governor's mansion in January.

But McCrory isn't paying much attention to the lessons of history or the demands of political orthodoxy. He's running for governor the same way he ran for mayor, shooting from the lip and giving the opposition fits.