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Republicans Face Uphill N.C. Battle

Wanted: Republican candidate for statewide office. Must be tough enough to win bruising primary battle, resilient enough to defeat Democrat incumbent with flush campaign coffers.

It's an appeal no GOP candidate in North Carolina has been able to answer in more than a century. And since the state constitution was changed in 1977 to allow governors to seek second terms, no incumbent Democrat has lost the job.

As the Republican gubernatorial race enters the final week before the July 20 primary, the conventional wisdom remains that whoever survives from the field of six faces an uphill battle against Democrat Mike Easley (search).

"It's going to be hard for any gubernatorial candidate to pull the party together very quickly and raise the type of funds necessary to beat a popular incumbent," said Marc Rotterman, a Republican strategist based in Raleigh.

The GOP primary race began more than a year ago and has been prolonged by a court battle over legislative districts that was primarily the result of Republican lawsuits.

In recent weeks, Richard Vinroot, who lost handily to Easley in 2000, has been adopting the post of a front-runner looking ahead to the general election. Twice in the last three months, he has staged news conferences at which he has attacked Easley from within earshot of the governor's office at the old Capitol.

The former Charlotte mayor blames Easley for raising taxes and creating a poor corporate environment that has stifled the state's economic recovery.

"I maintain that Governor Easley's policies have hurt us. They've hurt our job market," Vinroot said at his most recent Raleigh news conference. "The reason is, it's too expensive to do business here. It's too expensive to stay in business here, and something's got to change."

Vinroot, whose statewide campaigns in 1996 and 2000 give him the highest name recognition of the candidates, hopes to avoid a potential Aug. 17 runoff by capturing more than 40 percent of the vote next week. An independent poll and those of his competitors show Vinroot leading the GOP field but falling short of 40 percent.

Vinroot said he needs to win about one out of every four undecided votes to clinch the nomination this month. Otherwise, he said, he will have four fewer weeks in which to focus on Easley.

"I'd much more prefer to be taking on Governor Easley sooner and not later," he said.

Running second or third in polls is former state Republican Party chairman Bill Cobey of Durham. Ted Arrington, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, believes Cobey would be a dangerous runoff opponent for Vinroot.

Cobey has strong ties to the counties' Republican machinery, the endorsement of former U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms and the support of many conservative Christians.

"That runoff turnout is going to be real low — the more conservative and rock-ribbed Republicans," Arrington said. "Richard doesn't want to get in a runoff with Cobey."

Cobey dismisses comparisons between him and the last Republican to challenge an incumbent Democratic governor. Robin Hayes, a Christian conservative who beat Vinroot in the 1996 primary, got trounced by Jim Hunt in the general election.

"Jim Hunt was incredibly popular and a very effective politician," Cobey said. "This current governor is in stark contrast."

Arrington said the unusual timing of this year's primary makes him skeptical of any poll numbers.

"We haven't had a summer primary. We normally have them in May," Arrington said.

And just because surveys show Vinroot is the best-known of the candidates doesn't mean his supporters will show up to vote. "We've got no history to see who's going to be at the beach," Arrington said.

That's why Arrington believes former state Sen. Patrick Ballantine of Wilmington and Southern Pines insurance executive George Little, both well-funded, could make strong showings.

The other two candidates are state Sen. Fern Shubert of Marshville and Davie County commissioner Dan Barrett.

Vinroot and Cobey have sparred in the last few weeks, with Vinroot sending automated phone messages to prospective voters criticizing Cobey for voting for bills that raised taxes while in Congress in the mid-1980s. Cobey has fought back with his own phone blitz.

In the end, the longer the primary campaign goes, and possibly the more vicious it becomes, the harder it could be for the winner to raise money to counter the millions Easley has in the bank.

Paul Shumaker, a GOP strategist with clients such as House Co-Speaker Richard Morgan, points to John Edwards as the wild card in the November election.

As John Kerry's vice presidential choice, Edwards will energize core Democrats and pick off some moderate Republican voters. But his presence will also force national Republicans to pour money into North Carolina, motivating state GOP leaders to get out the vote, Shumaker predicted.

With Republicans pinning the "liberal" label on both Edwards and Kerry, Easley — who campaigned for Edwards during the presidential primaries — will have to decide whether he wants to be seen side-by-side with the national Democratic ticket.

"He was willing to go to Iowa for John Edwards, but is he willing to go to Charlotte for John Kerry?" Shumaker asked.