Walter Dalton, left, and Pat McCrory, at the debate. Screencap courtesy UNC-TV and the NCABEF.

North Carolina gubernatorial candidates squared off Wednesday night in their first live, televised debate. Democratic Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton and Republican former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory spoke on a variety of issues focusing primarily on the economy and education. Social issues like race relations were slightly addressed only once and neither candidate was asked his opinion on topics of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) equality issues.

Walter Dalton, left, and Pat McCrory, at the debate. Screencap courtesy UNC-TV and the NCABEF.

On the economy, Dalton and McCrory laid out drastically different ideas on how the government can help spark growth. McCrory said he wants to cut down on regulations which he believes hinders job creation. Under McCrory, a new tax code could eliminate corporate income taxes and reduce personal income taxes, replacing the lost revenue with new taxes on formerly untaxed services like barber and hair-styling services. Dalton said he’d focus on building new relationships with companies interested in taking advantage of North Carolina’s strong industries, like its military presence. Dalton also said he’d work to ensure high standards in the state’s education system in order to prepare young people for the workforce.

On education, Dalton said he would vigorously defend education funding and questioned McCrory’s support of the Republican legislature’s substantial cuts to primary, secondary and higher education in the state. Those cuts, he said, threatened important pre-K and “Smart Start” programs that prepare children for elementary school, programs widely praised in the past for raising education standards. The cuts to those programs were ruled unconstitutional by a state court, but the Republican legislature never returned to return funding to the programs.

McCrory said funding was not an answer to raising education standards. The focus, he said, should be on education results and said far too many students were failing to graduate.

“The whole debate is about the budget and not results,” McCrory said.

Though the debate was mostly civil, some fiery exchanges did take place. The most testy accusations can as McCrory and Dalton went head-to-head on McCrory’s record in as mayor in Charlotte. Dalton accused McCrory of taking a 19 percent pay raise as mayor even as the city began to suffer rising unemployment and increased spending. McCrory said he was reelected seven times and upset both the right and left, a sign he could be a bipartisan leader in Raleigh.

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney also became an issue during the debate. Dalton accused McCrory of supporting Romney despite his controversial comments on the 47 percent.

“When you kick half of the nation to the curb, that’s not what the people are wanting,” Dalton said.

Both candidates were also asked if a proposed voter identification law was “worth the price” given the numbers of people who could be disenfranchised by such laws.

“Absolutely, it’s worth the price,” McCrory said, adding the current voting system was “ripe for abuse.” If photo identification is required to buy medicine like Sudafed, McCrory said, then such identification is not a sacrifice when voting.

“Sudafed is not a precious constitutional right,” Dalton responded, saying McCrory did not understand the obstacles to photo identification cards experienced some citizens like seniors.

LGBT issues were not addressed during the debate, despite a highly-contested May primary election this year which saw the approval of a controversial anti-gay constitutional amendment. McCrory’s record on LGBT issues during his time as mayor is slim and many say he consistently snubbed LGBT citizens’ concerns. Dalton spoke out against the anti-gay amendment this year. Dalton became the first Tar Heel gubernatorial candidate to attend an LGBT campaign event last weekend when he attended a special fundraiser hosted by gay North Carolina furniture makers Mitchell Gold and Bob Williams.

The debate on Wednesday will be of more use to Dalton. Polls consistently show Dalton is trailing McCrory. An NBC News/Marist poll released last week and conducted Sept. 23-25 shows McCrory comfortably leading Dalton. Fifty-two percent of respondents said they intend on voting for McCrory, compared with Dalton’s 39 percent.

The debate was broadcast from University of North Carolina Television studios and presented by the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters Educational Foundation.

Matt Comer

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.