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Carolina races attract national attention

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It was already unusual when North Carolina politics received so much national attention during the last presidential campaign. (We were considered a toss-up state.) Now, though, the Carolinas feature three political races that are considered bellwethers of how voter discontent will play out in the fall. That means we'll be on the national radar until November, with national news groups filing plenty of reports and updates on the Carolinas' top dogfights.

In the recent N.C. primary runoff, N.C. Secretary of State Elaine Marshall ran as an old-line Democratic populist, and routed lethally bland Cal Cunningham who, although he got help from the national Democratic establishment, had next to zero grassroots support. Marshall, known for her ability to get out the vote among her supporters, will battle Republican Sen. Richard "BlueCross & BP" Burr in the fall general election. Burr is the favorite due to a hefty $10 million war chest, and currently leads in polls by anywhere from 7 to 14 percent, even though he is plagued by high "unfavorable opinion" numbers in the state.

Burr's support may be pretty shallow, as most polls indicate, but it remains to be seen whether Marshall can raise enough money to give him a serious race. The election could turn on how much support and funding the national Democrats will kick in for Marshall, the candidate they opposed in the runoff.

One thing is certain, however: If the first debate between the senatorial candidates was any indication, Burr's best option may be to stay away from live events where he has to think on his feet; the senator seemed to struggle to stay focused or offer much more than GOP fundraiser-type talking points, while Marshall and Libertarian candidate Mike Beitler were revved up and full of piss and vinegar. Expect Burr to wake up soon and start spending all that oil and insurance company money on campaign commercials.

In the 8th Congressional District GOP primary runoff, the Wild Man from Raeford, Tim D'Annunzio -- whose wacky ideas and enraged rants freaked out even the right-wingers running the state and national GOP -- was badly beaten by Harold "The Big Guy" Johnson, a famous former Charlotte sportscaster. In the pre-Timmy D. days, when Johnson's name was floated as a possible GOP congressional candidate, many Charlotteans scratched their heads and chuckled. Today, Johnson is the guy keeping the state GOP from being embarrassed. For Charlotteans who remember the Big Guy's TV days, we have to ask: Did you ever think that Harold Johnson, for God's sake, would ever be the least embarrassing candidate in an election? He now goes on to face Rep. Larry Kissell in November, but he'll do it without the endorsement of Timmy D., who accuses Johnson of dirty politics and character assassination for pointing out D'Annunzio's past scrapes with the law.

One highly respected political analysis group, The Cook Political Report, rates the Kissell-Johnson race a toss-up, while another, The Rothenberg Political Report, rates it as "Democrat favored." One key to the race will be Johnson's ability to get up to speed on the issues -- a policy wonk he is not, as even his top supporters admit.

In the most watched runoff race in the Carolinas, South Carolina state Rep. Nikki Haley, the daughter of Indian Sikh immigrants, crushed U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett to become the GOP candidate for governor. Haley, with strong support from Tea Partiers as well as Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney, successfully steered her campaign through the state's traditional "snake-ridden minefield" electoral ambience. She brushed aside accusations of marital infidelity, ignored being called a "rag head" by racist Republican state Sen. Jake Knotts, and was impervious to nasty runoff tactics by members of the state GOP establishment, who insinuated that Haley had converted to Christianity for political reasons and was actually still a Sikh.

Haley's victory produced one completely unexpected result: satisfaction and smiles from both Tea Partiers and progressives. The T.P.ers love it that someone who shares their beliefs in lower taxes and limited -- really limited -- government has a good chance of being S.C. governor, while progressives in the Carolinas celebrated the fact that the S.C. GOP establishment had its ass handed to it. And it was great to see a woman -- a daughter of Indian immigrants, no less -- survive sexist and racist attacks and go on to victory.

Haley's biggest problem could turn out to be her close ties to Mark Sanford. The ol' trail hiker isn't too popular in his home state these days, and Haley's Democratic opponent, the well-respected state senator Vince Sheheen, could emphasize her Sanford ties in the fall campaign. Also like Sanford, Haley is a libertarian-style budget and tax cutter. If she becomes governor, she may not have any more luck than did Sanford at moving proposals through the legislature. That would spell legislative paralysis to some extent, which renders state government useless (OK, more useless). Progressives, though, are hinting that they still see a big GOP logjam as favorable to having a mainstream S.C. GOP politician in the governor's office, ramming local pork through an eager legislature.

All three of these races are gifts to political junkies, so we'll be keeping an eye on them. We just hope to avoid being crowded out by the national press' big boys.

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