Incumbent Easley fends off GOP
Governor's race in North Carolina
(CNN) -- CNN projects Democratic incumbent Mike Easley will remain the governor of North Carolina by defeating Republican challenger Patrick Ballantine, the former state Senate Minority Leader.
Easley sought to fight off Ballantine's criticism and rebuff a GOP sweep across the South that had already overturned governorships in Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Mississippi.
Easley used the power of the incumbency during the campaign to help raise money and maintain a high profile as he fought Ballantine on issues ranging from the economy to health care.
During their debates, The Associated Press reported the candidates challenged each other on issues including immigration and education.
In one debate, Ballantine attacked Easley for plans that made it less difficult for illegal immigrants and potential terrorists to obtain drivers licenses. And Easley slammed Ballantine for a record on education that the governor likened to former Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein's record on human rights.
Despite a sagging economy -- North Carolina had its share of recent economic and budgetary woes, the blame for which was placed by Republicans at Easley's feet -- a number of polls showed that Easley headed into November with a solid lead.
A messy GOP primary that included six candidates and was heading to a runoff had potentially weakened Ballantine's effort. Former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot, the 2000 Republican gubernatorial candidate, led the field in the July 20 primary with 31 percent of vote and was headed to a runoff with Ballantine, who garnered 29 percent. But less than a month before the runoff, Vinroot opted out, giving the nomination to Ballantine and avoiding a potentially divisive primary fight.
Ballantine had pledged to cut personal and corporate income tax rates and to use state transportation funding for roads rather than urban rail projects. He also promised to try to raise the pay of state employees five percent for three consecutive years.
Easley had focused on his record as governor, including declining unemployment -- down 2 percentage points over two years -- and rising average test scores in state schools. He also had attacked Ballantine, criticizing his opponent's proposal to increase the pay of state employees, saying Ballantine would not be able to increase pay and cut taxes at the same time.
Making matters more difficult for the challenger was Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry's selection of North Carolina Sen. John Edwards as his running mate, which was expected to increase Democratic voter turnout in the state.