After opening a Charlotte headquarters Wednesday – and promising an office here if elected governor – Democrat Bev Perdue underscored what she considers her deep ties to the Queen City.
“It's like coming home,” she said. “It's not coming here for a political visit.”
Supporters say she might want to come home more often. Polls released this week show the lieutenant governor tied with or trailing Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, a Republican whose appeal in Charlotte has crossed party lines.
“Bev is not doing well against McCrory among Democrats in Mecklenburg County,” said Joel Ford, Mecklenburg's Democratic chairman. “My biggest challenge is to get her message out to Mecklenburg.”
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Mecklenburg and eight adjacent counties account for more than 1 in 5 N.C. voters. They're part of a media market that has grown familiar with McCrory over his record seven terms as mayor. Voters have seen him re-elected in mostly Democratic Charlotte with as much as 78 percent of the vote, and never lower than 56 percent.
Perdue, who long represented the New Bern area in the legislature, is trying to become the state's first female governor. McCrory is trying to become the first Charlotte mayor elected statewide after four predecessors tried and failed.
In a spirited debate Tuesday, she and McCrory jousted over school vouchers, TV ads and her changed stance on oil drilling off the N.C. coast. (She opposed drilling and now supports studying it; McCrory supports it.)
Polling suggests McCrory is doing better in the region than Patrick Ballantine, the GOP's 2004 candidate, who lost badly despite running with a then-popular Republican president.
“The reason McCrory is doing so much better … is a strong standing with white Democrats,” Tom Jenson of Raleigh's Public Policy Polling wrote on a recent blog. “You know it's a new world order in North Carolina when the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, rather than running away from the presidential nominee, may need his help to be elected.”
Concern among Democrats
A poll released Wednesday by Jensen's group, which leans Democratic, found the race virtually tied. So did a survey by a group headed by Democratic strategist James Carville. That poll found N.C. voters had a “warmer” feeling about the outgoing McCrory than either candidate for president, U.S. Senate or governor.
“Right many Democrats are concerned,” said Democratic strategist Gary Pearce of Raleigh. “For somebody that's been around as long as she has, she's not a particularly well-known figure statewide. Being a legislator and lieutenant governor, it's hard to stand out.”
Pearce said that until Tuesday's more feisty debate, Perdue sometimes came across as “nervous (and) uncomfortable” to some Democrats.
“They'd like to see her project some more confidence,” he said.
In Charlotte, Perdue cast herself as a crusader against the status quo, both as a woman and a legislator. She also noted Charlotte projects she has helped fund over the years, including Discovery Place and the Mint Museum.
“I think I've been here consistently for the last 14 years,” she said. “I feel like I'm a friend of Charlotte.”
Despite that, some Democrats say she has to work to overcome McCrory's strong recognition in the region.
“She's got a bit of an identity deficit to overcome,” said Bill Toole, chairman of the Gaston County Democrats. “But as people get to know her, they really like her.”
Democratic Mecklenburg commissioner Parks Helms said Perdue should be more visible in McCrory's backyard.
“I don't think she's done enough in Mecklenburg,” he said. “I don't think she can discount the value of Mecklenburg County … Pat is looking at three media markets (with Raleigh and the Triad) up and down I-85. She's got to compete with that.”
Perdue's ads in Charlotte
The Alliance for North Carolina, a Democratic group, has spent more than $900,000 on ads criticizing McCrory on issues such as the minimum wage. But the group hasn't yet run ads in the Charlotte market, said spokesman Scott Falmlen.
Perdue has started new ads in Charlotte, saying McCrory favors school vouchers and opposes embryonic stem cell research.
“I think that you'll begin to see the divides,” Perdue said Wednesday.
“I really believe the differences are so serious between us that the citizens of North Carolina will say this is an election about the future.”
McCrory spokeswoman Amy Auth calls Perdue's ads misleading, saying McCrory doesn't support across-the-board vouchers and does support adult and amniotic, though not embryonic, stem cell research.
“It's unfortunate that the lieutenant governor is running a misleading and tasteless ad,” Auth said.
Jensen, of Public Policy Polls, acknowledged the wealth of votes in the Charlotte region. McCrory, he said, won the GOP primary “simply by getting votes there and getting trounced every place else.”
“If Perdue can get the Democrats in the Charlotte region to vote 80 percent for her, she wins,” he said. “There's just not enough traction left in the rest of the state for McCrory to win.”