SMITHFIELD, N.C. — It rained in 2008 when Pat McCrory came to state Rep. Leo Daughtry's home for a fundraiser, having spent nearly all his campaign money on a five-way primary in the race for governor. And he was asking for donations in Johnston County, the home of defeated primary rival Fred Smith.
This year, blooming azaleas and mostly cloudless skies greeted McCrory as he returned to Daughtry's lakeside backyard in Smithfield for another fundraiser as the presumptive Republican nominee. Smith attended the gathering and is now McCrory's stand-in at political events he can't make.
"He gives my speech better than I do mine," McCrory quipped to the 100 people who raised $25,000 for the former Charlotte mayor.
Like the early spring day, McCrory's preparation for a repeat gubernatorial bid since losing to Democrat Beverly Perdue in 2008 has given him mostly clear political skies — at least until the general election. By remaining active in the conservative movement and riding the North Carolina GOP chicken-dinner circuit, McCrory has kept big-name party rivals out of the primary.
With Perdue not seeking re-election, the survivor of the six-way Democratic primary will have to raise money again from scratch, not McCrory. He's got the luxury of working to raise several million dollars for fall advertising and of carefully planning out his strategy.
"He's not running against anybody in particular, so he can go out and raise money and be Mr. Nice Guy, and (the Democrats) can cut each other up," said Daughtry, himself a second-place finisher in the 2000 Republican primary for governor. "It's a perfect position to be in."
The five other Republicans who filed for the May 8 primary appear to lack the fundraising ability, networks and name recognition to compete with McCrory. There are no statewide televised GOP debates scheduled that could give another opponent a venue to test McCrory, who declined to say anything unpleasant about party rivals.
"They have every right to be in the race," he said in an interview last week.
McCrory's campaign had $2 million in the bank as of Dec. 31 — the date of its last campaign report — thanks in part to appearances by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is coming to Raleigh on April 30 for McCrory.
"With his own party, he's more the known commodity," said Adam Short, a member of the Elon University political science department. The big-name fundraising, Short added, "gives him an aura of support, or that aura of inevitability."
The money race attempts to shore up one shortcoming in the 2008 campaign, when he lost to Perdue by about 3 percentage points. He said he didn't have the resources to challenge Perdue television commercials critical of him. Perdue essentially doubled McCrory's spending in the general election.
"We won't let that happen again," McCrory said. "I try to hold on to as much money as we can to communicate."
Perhaps sensing another potential liability for Republicans this fall, McCrory made his public schools platform the first one he unveiled two weeks ago. Democrats have criticized Republicans for enacting a state budget last year that when carried out ultimately led local school districts to eliminate thousands of teacher or teacher assistant positions.
McCrory's plan, which included merit pay for teachers, more student access to charter schools and more focus upon vocational education, may counter arguments that he, as a Republican, is opposed to public education.
"I'm not going to give up on education. In fact, I have a passion for it," McCrory told the Smithfield gathering. "We are Republicans that believe in education, but we do not accept the status quo of education in this state."
There are things McCrory can't control, like President Barack Obama's re-election campaign in North Carolina this fall. McCrory believes Obama's massive get-out-the-vote effort in 2008 helped provide coattails for Perdue to win.
The Democratic primary candidates for governor — especially Walter Dalton, Bob Etheridge and Bill Faison — already are going after McCrory, saying he supported last year's Republican budget and has pledged to let bills Perdue vetoed — including a photo identification requirement to vote — become law if elected.
Democratic Party leaders argue McCrory hasn't released enough information about his work at a Charlotte law firm and his finances, making it hard for the public to know about potential conflicts of interest. If McCrory "really believes in openness and transparency as he claims, then he should have no problem being up front with the citizens of North Carolina by releasing his tax returns and a full and detailed list of his clients and financial interests," party spokesman Walton Robinson said.
McCrory resents Democrats suggesting he's been an illegal, unregistered lobbyist — which he vehemently denies. He said he performs "client development work" at the Moore & Van Allen firm, but he's not a lawyer and has no specific clients. He declined to go into more detail in deference to his employer.
McCrory listed clients at another job — a partner at his brother's consulting firm — on the economic disclosure statement candidates must file. According to McCrory, his political career is evidence of his conduct as governor.
"I have 14 years of being a mayor without one question about my ethical integrity," McCrory said. "The way you can judge future character is to judge past character."
For now, it appears McCrory's political strategy has paid off for the primary.
McCrory, labeled a moderate by some, didn't face a well-funded opponent endeared by social conservatives, like Smith in 2008. Republicans who want to hold the Executive Mansion for the first time since 1993 sound willing to set aside ideological purity for a victory.
"Is he perfect for everyone? No," said Sim DeLapp Jr. of Lexington, former chairman of the North Carolina Christian Coalition. Given that McCrory almost beat Perdue in 2008, DeLapp added, "I think people are willing to give him a chance."
Pat McCrory for Governor: http://www.patmccrory.com