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Pat's Phantom Campaign

McCrory gets free publicity from dubious governor's race hints

If Mayor Pat McCrory wanted to buy the space this article occupies for political advertising, he would have to shell out some money. Or, McCrory could just hint that he might be considering a run for governor and, like most news organizations, we'd write an article about his potential run for governor for free, whether he's actually running or not. The downside of this is that he'd have zero editing privileges. The upside, from his point of view, is that in the process of writing this article, we've printed the word "McCrory" 25 times and it didn't cost him a dime.Charlotte's mayor may be playing coy with the media about a potential run for governor for now. But Creative Loafing couldn't find a single bonafide political operative between the mountains and the coast of North Carolina who really believes McCrory is serious about doing anything more than grabbing some free publicity on his way to yet another run for mayor.

Ever since McCrory told the Charlotte Observer last month that he's keeping his options open for a possible 2004 governor's race, his name has been floated in articles by the Associated Press and dozens of state newspapers, alongside those of other Republicans considering or committed to challenging Governor Mike Easley in 2004.

That was the easy part. But as far as doing the stuff folks would expect from someone even considering running for governor, well, they just haven't seen any of that from McCrory recently.

"I think he's serious about wanting to go to a higher office, yeah," said UNCC political science professor Ted Arrington. "Whether it's this one or not, I don't know. He likes to keep his hand in by getting all of us to talk about him by mentioning something like this every so often."

It's more than academic. The language and art of politics is a subtle one in which certain symbolic cues -- generally understood by political insiders but typically missed by the general population -- can speak volumes. And McCrory isn't giving off those cues, say those who'd know.

One of the first places someone like McCrory would go for support would be the state's Republican members of Congress, who could be helpful in their districts during a Republican primary for governor. But when CL called the offices of the state's congresspeople, the response ranged from surprise that McCrory was considering a run to questions about whether he's a Republican or a Democrat.

"There's no way he's going to run for governor," said a high level staffer for one North Carolina congressman. "I don't think anyone who follows politics thinks at all that he's serious. Nor is he doing what you need to do to do it. In February and March, every county has Republican gatherings. It's called the Lincoln Day Dinner circuit. He didn't do what you would do if you were getting ready to run for governor. You would go to Wake County and Durham and Forsythe and all the western counties in the state because that's where your Republicans are. Every Saturday for the last three months he would have been out of county speaking at these events."

One of the doors McCrory would be expected to knock on first to test the waters, were he really serious about considering a run, would be that of newly elected US Senator Elizabeth Dole, who McCrory backed and worked for during the senate race last year, and who, frankly, owes him a favor or two.

The last time McCrory spoke to the Dole people, said Brian Nick, Dole's press secretary, the Charlotte mayor said he was focusing on running for re-election and being the best mayor for Charlotte. McCrory told state Republican Party chairman Bill Cobey the same thing.

"I guess I was assuming he was running for re-election as mayor," said Cobey. "I know there are people who have been urging him to run, but he hasn't indicated to me any intent to run or that he's even looking at it."

A Republican political consultant from the Raleigh area who asked not to be identified says he's not figuring a McCrory gubernatorial candidacy into his calculations for 2004 because he's seen no real signs that the mayor is considering a run.

"That rabbit hasn't been running in the Raleigh area, no," he said. "I'd know it if he were."

The folks on the North Carolina State Board of Elections campaign finance staff haven't heard from McCrory yet, either.

"He has not set up a campaign account with us," said Jacqueline Kannan, an information specialist with the board.

That's not to say that almost all of the folks listed above wouldn't take a McCrory candidacy for governor seriously if the four-term mayor suddenly started walking the walk. McCrory had $153,000 in his mayoral campaign chest as of May 23, which so far puts him in the front of the pack in fundraising. He's also well known in Charlotte's regional media market, the largest press market in the state. If he announced tomorrow, McCrory would assume a place at the head of the pack of Republican candidates, which for the moment includes virtual statewide unknowns like Dan Barrett of Winston-Salem, Jim Cain of Raleigh, George Little of Southern Pines and state Senate Minority Leader Patrick Ballantine who is well-known in the less populous eastern part of the state but is little more than a vaguely familiar name in the heavily populated piedmont.

But McCrory's media market advantage means little when you consider that for more than 15 years, every well-known and well-liked Charlotte politician who has attempted a statewide run wound up watching their campaign, and often their political career, go down in flames. For politicians from Charlotte, running statewide with the Queen City logo on their backs is somewhat akin to running with a terminal disease, but without the possibility of a sympathy vote. For whatever reason, Charlotte just isn't well-liked by the other residents of this state.

Just ask perennial statewide candidate Richard Vinroot, who says he plans to run for governor in 2004 as well. Vinroot has raised the millions it takes to be competitive in a governor's or senate race, although one couldn't tell he actually spent it to look at vote totals, where he has repeatedly been shellacked.

Even if President Bush maintains his sky-high popularity ratings, which is unlikely, and McCrory got out of the Republican primary, he'd still only have a 50-50 chance of beating Easley, said Arrington.

"Can he beat Easley? Yes," said Arrington. "What are the odds? They're not good."

Especially if McCrory doesn't start raising money immediately. The cost of a successful challenge to Easley will run at least $4 million to $5 million, though the true cost of upsetting him is likely to be closer to the $8.3 million John Edwards spent to wrest the US Senate seat from Lauch Faircloth in 1998.

For McCrory, the fundraising picture would be complicated by the fact that it would be difficult to begin raising the kind of substantial funds he'd need until he wraps up the mayor's race November. Filing for the 2004 governor's race begins in January.

"That will delay his raising money to November or December and that could be too late," said Arrington.

But hey, at least the guy's politically savvy enough to float his name and pick up the thousands of dollars of free statewide advertising courtesy of the journalists who write articles just like this one.

"If I were his advisor I'd tell him not to run for governor, but I'd tell him to do everything he's doing -- float it, float it, float it and then run for re-election as mayor," said one congressional campaign veteran.

And that, it appears, is exactly what McCrory is doing.

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