Debate heats up in N.C. governor's race

In one of the most spirited gubernatorial races in recent memory, Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue and Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory traded barbs, accusations, ideas and even a few laughs Tuesday night as the campaign entered its final eight weeks. In a debate sponsored by Raleigh's WRAL-TV, the candidates sought to make clear distinctions between each other, but their high energy level and a tidal wave of words sometimes threatened to overcome viewers' attention.

Yet the candidates were clear enough to show a more energetic and focused Bev Perdue defending her evolving position on offshore drilling for oil and gas and attacking Mayor McCrory for his support for school vouchers, which she says could cost public schools hundreds of millions of dollars. For the lieutenant governor, it was an opportunity to show voters she is more composed and her thoughts better organized than in previous public forums with the mayor, who handles himself well in forums where contentious issues are on the table.

It was clear once again in this latest setting that back-and-forth debates do not play to the strengths of the lieutenant governor, who did more debating as a member of the House and Senate than as presiding officer of the Senate the past seven-and-a-half years. Yet her performance Tuesday was stronger. She refused to be overwhelmed by the rush of words and took pains to make her points on such issues as offshore drilling.

Mayor McCrory insisted that only a few weeks ago she had opposed offshore drilling. Not so, she countered; she fully supports offshore drilling, she says, starting with leases already under contract. She wants expert advice on what kind of drilling would be safe, and where. And she wants governors to have the right to determine where drilling operations can occur.

Mr. McCrory, by contrast, is all for drilling, now, for oil and gas. It matters not that drilling might not produce any immediate results. The point, he said, was to get on with it so there will be new supplies of gas and oil as quickly as possible. Score that exchange for the mayor. His position is clearer and easily explainable. Hers requires conditional clauses.

The two also have a continuing disagreement over school vouchers. While the mayor in the past has indicated a broader preference for vouchers to help children attend private schools or be home-schooled, he said Tuesday night he supports vouchers only for selected students in certain circumstances, a far narrower use of public funds and a far lesser cost than the lieutenant governor accuses him of supporting in a way that's dangerous to public education.

Tuesday's debate sharpened the distinctions between the candidates. It's somewhat clearer what each intends to do as governor. But in a state where the population and demands for services are growing fast, both must offer voters more compelling specifics – and soon..