DURHAM, N.C. - When they invited the leading Democratic candidates for governor to a water policy forum, organizers at Duke University hoped Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue and State Treasurer Richard Moore would answer questions together on the same stage.
Instead, Moore and Perdue appeared separately Tuesday, sitting at different times in the same red wing-back chair. The format provided more verbal artillery for Moore, who again accused Perdue of purposefully avoiding one-on-one debates in the final weeks of their high-stakes campaign.
"The voters deserve to hear us discuss our approaches to government side by side ... and to answer tough questions about important issues," Moore told about 200 people inside Duke's Griffith Theater. "Well, Bev, my understanding is that you're probably here, and so am I. What are you afraid of?"
Perdue, who entered the room a few minutes later, scoffed at Moore's accusation, citing their four previous televised debates and an upcoming event on April 24.
"We've been in countless forums, so I continue to wonder what the treasurer is whining about," Perdue said Tuesday after the water forum.
Tuesday's forum was organized by a Duke-led coalition of environmental groups, real estate agent lobbyists and others interested in the state's water policies. Questions focused on the drought, water conservation and funding new and existing water infrastructure expected to cost $16 billion by 2030.
Two other candidates _ former Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr, a Republican, and Libertarian Mike Munger _ also participated. All four candidates were given questions in advance, but were asked to respond in person.
"Our initial idea was to have a session for Democratic candidates and a session for Republican candidates," said Bill Holman with Duke's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. "For scheduling reasons that format didn't work out."
The forum was originally set to last 75 minutes for each party, but Perdue's campaign spokesman said Perdue couldn't commit to the timeframe. She will join Moore next week to answer questions during a live blog on a liberal-leaning Web site, but that won't require the two candidates be together.
Two of their previous debates were sponsored by University of North Carolina Television. Another was hosted by the N.C. School Boards Association and the fourth by the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Moore said none was a true debate. Their formats left little or no time for candidates to respond directly to each other's remarks or to engage in the kind of back-and-forth debate voters expect, he said. Moore said he wants debates with informal rules that will encourage such interactions.
But Perdue's campaign said the previous forums have served the public well by focusing on education, civil rights and health care.
"The questions from the moderators are pretty substantive questions," Perdue spokesman David Kochman said. "That's made them informative events."
Moore's campaign said Perdue has declined to participate in at least 11 debates or forums. Some events have gone on without her, including forums this week sponsored by WITN-TV, Inner Banks Media and East Carolina University, and the N.C. Center for Nonprofits.
Over the past few months, Kochman has said Perdue declined several forum requests due to scheduling conflicts. He said it has nothing to do with Perdue being ahead in the polls, noting that Perdue was leading when she agreed to the earlier debates.
Voters must decide whether such explanations are credible, Moore said.
Ted Arrington, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said neither candidate had any particular vulnerability but suggested Moore had more to gain during a debate.
"He's behind and he needs more exposure," Arrington said. "She's ahead. Why should she debate and give him a forum?"
Although Orr was the only Republican who visited Duke on Tuesday, the four leading GOP hopefuls can't be faulted for having a lack of debates. They have met at least five times on television and have held several more forums before partisan crowds, including one scheduled in Henderson County on Wednesday night.
"It really has been a positive experience," Orr said.