With his back against the political ropes, Governor Pat McCrory was ready for a fight on Tuesday night. The Republican incumbent looked energized, confident, and threw jabs, hooks and overhand rights at his challenger, Attorney General Roy Cooper.
"You’re about as straight as another trial lawyer who became a politician in North Carolina, and that's John Edwards, because you’re fooling the jury right now," McCrory said.
McCrory trails – an average of recent polls show him down four points. He has been out-raised and outspent by a roughly three-to-one margin. And he is in danger of becoming the first governor to lose a re-election bid, since they were eligible to do so in the 1970s.
At the UNC-TV studios in Research Triangle Park, the men extended verbal blows from the outset. Moderator Chuck Todd immediately asked about House Bill 2, the controversial state law that limits protections for LGBT people.
"Governor McCrory continues to go across the state telling people that this is not hurting our economy," Cooper said."He attacks businesses who are opposed to it and says that everything is going fine. Governor, what planet are you on?"
The controversial bathroom bill did not dominate the forum. There were plenty of other topics for the two men to disagree on. Taxes was one, as the Governor recalled an income tax rate of well over seven percent when he took office.
"Now we’ve reduced it to low five percent. The business and corporate tax was six percent, now it’s down to three percent, and we’re recruiting private business again," McCrory said. "Three-hundred-thousand new private sector jobs. Mr. Cooper, if you become Governor, are you going to raise the income tax again? Are you going to raise the corporate tax again? Answer that question, because you were against our tax reform."
Cooper did not directly answer. The moderator did a hokey pokey during the one hour debate – getting in and out, letting the candidates engage, and hitting a number of topics. Along with HB2 and the economy, McCrory and Cooper wrangled over issues of education, police footage and healthcare.
Four years ago during a debate, McCrory said he would not further restrict access to abortions. However, he has since broken the promise twice. When asked, the Governor pivoted to say it was necessary over unsanitary facilities. Cooper offered this:
"We don’t need state government bureaucrats reviewing women’s ultrasounds. This is the kind of restriction that he promised that he would not put in place that he did. And now he’s coming around trying to say that’s not a restriction. I think people would say that it is Governor, and that you’re distorting your record."
North Carolina now has a 72-hour waiting period to get an abortion. McCrory signed a law that increased the wait from 24 hours. This forum was far more civil than Sunday's presidential debate between hopefuls Donaly Trump and Hillary Clinton. However, Todd asked both candidates questions about the major party nominees for president.
"As you know a majority of North Carolinians do not think Hillary Clinton is honest and trustworthy, do you?" Todd asked Cooper.
Cooper replied: "I think she is much more trustworthy than Donald Trump, and I believe the secretary will help to keep our country more safe and more secure; and she certainly is not going to be a dangerous president like Donald Trump … who Governor McCrory supports."
Todd: "Is he a role model for kids?"
McCrory: "Not his vulgar, verbal outbursts, I don’t like the personal attacks, I hate it."
Todd: "Any part of him make him a role model?"
McCrory: "I think what makes him a role model is where he does stand strong on certain issues that need to be said, especially from outside Washington D.C."
Afterward, Cooper quickly criticized his rival for that role model statement, and for not withdrawing support of Trump all together.
McCrory told a gaggle of reporters afterward that he considered not doing the debate, as large sections of the state are dealing with damage and flooding caused by Hurricane Matthew.
The candidates are scheduled to meet for a final debate on Tuesday, October 18.