RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. (AP) — Three Democratic candidates for North Carolina governor spent their second televised debate Tuesday night focusing upon how to differentiate themselves from each other as much as how they are different from likely Republican rival Pat McCrory in the general election.
Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton and state Rep. Bill Faison ramped up criticisms of former U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge early in the hour-long debate at the University of North Carolina Television studios. They criticized his 2003 votes in Congress for trade deals that many House Democrats opposed.
Dalton said his home Rutherford County has struggled with 17 percent unemployment in recent years that he blames in part on trade agreements with Chile and Singapore backed by President George W. Bush's administration and that Etheridge also supported.
"Little did I know that when I got into this race that Bobby had voted with Bush on that," Dalton said. "Our exports have gone down. We are still getting back to our knees because of that vote."
Etheridge said Dalton was wrong, saying trade and export increased in the U.S. because of that agreement.
"North Carolina was a major benefactor. Yes, there are jobs lost in trade treaties but there are jobs won and jobs benefited," Etheridge said.
Faison responded that the state's current struggling economy is proof the trade deal wasn't very successful.
"These jobs that you're talking about are in some other state ... Maybe you got some jobs, but you didn't bring them home," Faison said.
Etheridge had an opportunity to get his own licks, mentioning at least twice that Faison and Dalton were attorneys while he was a longtime businessman before he was elected state schools superintendent in 1988.
"I'm not an attorney. I'm a businessman. These two will have to answer the legal piece of it," Etheridge said while responding to a question about the proposed constitutional amendment to define traditional marriage as the only legal domestic union in the state. All three of the candidates are opposed to the amendment, which will be on the same May 8 primary ballot as the governor's race.
Faison continued his arguments that Dalton and Etheridge haven't been fighting the Republican agenda at the Legislature for several months like he's done until they decided to run for governor. He suggested the other two had been living off government paychecks for years while he's operated a law firm.
"I'm not a professional politician. Both of them are," said Faison, calling himself a "citizen legislator."
Dalton, who ran a law practice like Faison before being elected lieutenant governor in 2008, quipped: "If Bill doesn't want to work for the government, he can get out of the race because the governor works for the government."
All three of them said the state should give tax credits to low-income residents to help them ease the burden of a temporary sales tax increase they've proposed to restore spending reductions made in the Republican-penned state budget approved last year. The candidates continued to hammer on GOP legislative leaders for requiring school districts to return state money, which they say in turn have led to reductions of teacher and teaching assistant positions.
The Republicans "put together a budget that's just a trickster's budget," Etheridge said. Democrats, however, required similar cutbacks by the districts in 2009 and 2010. Faison kept referring to a "radical social agenda" pushed by the GOP that he's been fighting while in the Legislature.
McCrory, the former Charlotte mayor and heavy favorite among six Republicans running in the May 8 primary, also got attention from the Democratic candidates.
"For the last three years, Pat McCrory has been traveling the state campaigning for governor," Dalton said. "For the last three years I have been traveling the state, working for you, helping our people get through the tough times."
All of them said they would be able to work together with a Republican-led Legislature if the GOP remained in control of the House and Senate in 2013. Faison said there are enough people of good will to work on common-sense solutions on jobs and the economy. Dalton and Etheridge both pointed to bipartisan legislation they had pushed successfully as proof of their willingness to work across party lines.
"Rhetoric doesn't get the job done," Etheridge said.
WRAL-TV held a debate Monday that aired in markets statewide. Another debate is scheduled for the WNCN-TV studios in Raleigh on Wednesday, the eve of the early voting period. Other Democratic candidates Gardenia Henley of Winston-Salem, Gary Dunn of Matthews and Bruce Blackmon of Buies Creek aren't participating in this week's TV debates.