Taylor Batten

Gov race starts with a flurry

Gov. Pat McCrory (left) and Attorney General Roy Cooper shake hands Friday after their debate.
Gov. Pat McCrory (left) and Attorney General Roy Cooper shake hands Friday after their debate. AP

If Pat McCrory hadn’t fully realized what a heavyweight bout he is in, he does now after Roy Cooper delivered a series of hooks and uppercuts in the first round of their championship fight in Charlotte on Friday.

McCrory came out with his chin out, unprotected. Today, he’s back in his corner, his trainers putting salve on his busted lip. Soon, his coach will work with him on making stronger jabs and better defending himself.

No North Carolina governor has ever run for a second term and lost, but McCrory could be the first. Friday’s debate at the Westin uptown was the first of several and marked the kickoff of what is sure to be a fierce four-month campaign.

For a few minutes, it appeared the debate would be tame, with each candidate emphasizing his own record. McCrory dedicated all five minutes of his opening statement to what he sees as his accomplishments. He touted teacher pay raises, Medicaid reform and the paying off of unemployment insurance debt. He highlighted the state’s falling unemployment rate, a series of tax cuts and a successful statewide bond referendum.

Then it was Cooper’s turn. He offered a brief review of his record, then said:

“I think Gov. McCrory has failed us. He has put his extreme social partisan agenda ahead of jobs and schools. And we’ve all paid the price.”

Cooper said teachers are leaving the state because of the low pay and lack of respect they receive. He argued that recent Republican tax cuts have benefited the wealthy and corporations, and that McCrory has supported dozens of other tax hikes that have hurt the middle class.

Then this:

“The governor continues to hurt our economy with his doubling and tripling down on House Bill 2.”

The loud applause from the N.C. Bar Association members knocked McCrory back a moment. It was hardly a warm homecoming for the man who was mayor of Charlotte for 14 years.

McCrory then doubled and tripled down on HB2, saying the Charlotte ordinance that allowed people to use the bathroom for the gender with which they identify was an improper intrusion into the private sector.

The debate made clear how the campaign is likely to unfold. McCrory will run on his “Carolina Comeback,” including lower income tax rates, teacher pay hikes and lower unemployment rates. Cooper will try to give a fuller picture of the N.C. economy and the causes of its rebound while reminding voters of McCrory’s many stumbles, not least of which was HB2.

The winner will likely hinge on which of those messages sticks better. McCrory has presided over economic improvement. Voters will decide if that’s because of his policies or in spite of them, with the state riding a national comeback.

McCrory was losing slightly on many ringside judges’ cards when he and Cooper delivered closing statements. McCrory meandered all over, talking about unemployment benefits, a cousin returning from Vietnam more than 40 years ago, in-state tuition for veterans and other nitty grit.

Cooper then talked about his and McCrory’s ideas about leadership.

“The governor’s idea is to take credit for every success and point the finger of blame for every failure,” Cooper said. “What we need are leaders who understand problems and take responsibility for them and fix them.”

McCrory staggered to his corner, and we now await Round 2.