Close contests, Hunt's shadow are focus of North Carolina gubernatorial primary
CHARLOTTE, North Carolina (CNN) -- North Carolina has always been two states -- the Research Triangle-high-tech-prosperity area, which elects progressives like Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt, and the rural-state-tobacco-old-fashioned-religious-values area, which elects staunch conservatives like Republican Sen. Jesse Helms.
So the three major candidates in Tuesday's Republican gubernatorial primary all say, "Hey, I'm conservative."
"I represent the values of the party moreso than Richard Vinroot does," said GOP gubernatorial candidate Leo Daughtry, in reference to his opponent, a former Charlotte mayor. "I've been endorsed by the National Rifle Association. My record of being a pro-life conservative is certainly better than his."
Vinroot played basketball for North Carolina's legendary coach, Dean Smith, who has endorsed him. Vinroot has signed a "no new taxes" pledge and attacks Daughtry.
"Leo Daughtry, one of my opponents, has led the charge to increase our spending by 10 percent a year and given us the largest tax increase this state's ever had," said Vinroot at a recent campaign appearance.
The two and Chuck Neely, the third major Republican, all oppose a state lottery -- a big issue right now in a lot of southern states. They are pretty close on other issues as well.
"Truth be told, there aren't real issues. What we're dealing with among the Republicans here has been summarized as saying, 'We have three country club Republicans, all three of them trying to run as part of the Christian right," said Ted Arrington, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte.
A Christian Coalition voter guide says Vinroot supports abortion on demand during the first trimester. He denies it, but it matters.
"One thing we know about the Christian conservatives: They vote, and they have been instructed not to vote for Richard Vinroot," Arrington said.
The major Democratic candidates -- Attorney General Mike Easley and Lt. Gov. Dennis Wicker -- are both part of term-limited Hunt's administration. Easley leads in most polls. Wicker may have an edge among core Democrats -- he got endorsed at a recent get-out-the-vote rally sponsored by African-Americans.
Easley has one big advantage. "He's running from the very visible office of attorney general," said Arrington. "He's been able to do things for the public and be seen as doing things for the public for the last four years, whereas Dennis Wicker has been lieutenant governor. It's a position that disappears into the woodwork behind the governor."
They agree on issues. Both favor a lottery, with the money to go to education. Wicker, in ads, accuses Easley of helping the enemy, forcing fellow Democrat Harvey Gantt into a runoff which helped Jesse Helms win re-election in 1996, and giving strategic advice to Lauch Faircloth's unsuccessful Senate re-election bid two years later.
The Republican winner -- he'll need 40 percent to avoid a runoff -- will be a conservative, although not as conservative as Jesse Helms (in this growing state, the party is changing). The Democrats will nominate a moderate; that's the only kind they have here. And the general election campaign, like the primary, will probably be nasty.