CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- Democrats had every reason to believe they would extend their 16-year hold on the state's Executive Mansion - and make history in the process by electing Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue as North Carolina's first female governor.
Then Pat McCrory, the Republican mayor of Charlotte, made a late entry into the race and tapped into voters' frustration with state government while presenting a fiscal message that was attractive to centrist newcomers in what is now the 10th most populous state.
As early voting began Thursday, polls showed the race as a toss-up.
"(McCrory) threw a monkey wrench into the governor's race," said longtime state Democratic operative Brad Crone. "There was a general assumption that Perdue had the upper hand ... (but) it is truly up for grabs."
Current Democratic Gov. Mike Easley is barred by term limits from seeking re-election, and Perdue has spent two decades building the political backing and slate of accomplishments needed for a run at the governor's office. Excitement about Barack Obama's bid to win the state's electoral votes gave Democrats confidence in her candidacy.
After serving as chief budget writer in the state Senate and as a top aide to former Gov. Jim Hunt, the former geriatric consultant was elected the state's first female lieutenant governor in 2000.
In a job with few inherent powers, the 61-year-old Perdue carved out her own place by running a trust fund that reduced teenage smoking and leading efforts to protect the state's military installations during the latest round of base closings.
"You can have a lieutenant governor who just sits and waits, or quits, or you can have somebody who really wants to work and make a difference," Perdue said.
Twenty-two states have had female governors, including eight currently in office, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
Even in a state known for backing Republicans in presidential elections and sending conservatives like the late Sen. Jesse Helms to Congress, GOP governors are nearly as rare as female chief executives. The party has only occupied the governor's office for 12 of the past 100 years.
As mayor of Charlotte, the state's largest city and financial capital, McCrory fits the mold of the business-oriented Republicans who ran successful gubernatorial campaigns here in the 1970s and '80s.
"We need to change the culture of state government to make it more responsive to the public, to the taxpayers and constituents as its customers," he said in a debate Wednesday night in Charlotte.
McCrory has been popular with Democrats during 13 years as mayor, largely overlooking the hot-button issues of social conservatives, such as abortion and gay marriage, even as he took a hard line on immigration.
"You don't get elected seven times by the margins he's been elected if you aren't very satisfied for the job that he's done," said Jack Hawke, McCrory's chief campaign consultant.
McCrory, who turns 52 on Friday, is a former basketball referee and utility company middle-manager whose successful elections date back to his run for high school student body president on a campaign of opposing the school's "pseudo-elite."
These days, he talks about a "power elite" - Easley and Perdue included - who lead a "culture of inaccessibility" through secret budget meetings and the outgoing governor's reclusive nature.
During the campaign, Perdue has distanced herself from Easley. Although the incumbent was popular for most of his two terms, he has been criticized recently for his handing of health care reform, and for expensive overseas travel billed as economic development.
The Republican Governors Association has labeled Perdue "Status Quo Bev" as part of a $3 million campaign blaming her for the state's economic troubles.
Perdue also faced bad publicity after two Board of Transportation members who raised money for her campaign resigned from the panel - one over conflict-of-interest allegations and the other for seeking political donations from developers who got funding from the board.
The race may come down to which candidate can peel off the most votes from the other's home base - the Charlotte metro area for McCrory and eastern North Carolina for Perdue.
Perdue may also benefit from heavy turnout for Obama, Crone said, particularly among black voters. That's an unusual twist in North Carolina, where Democrats have traditionally distanced themselves from national tickets viewed as too liberal.
"It's contrary to the political thought we've had over the last three decades," he said.
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