- Associated Press - Saturday, March 19, 2016

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - With the preliminaries now over, the long-anticipated main event in North Carolina politics is truly under way.

Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper cruised to gubernatorial primary victories this past week, setting up the fall campaign many predicted three years ago would occur.

“The governor’s race is going to be an epic battle,” said Alfredo Rodriguez, a Republican political consultant from Charlotte not involved in the campaign. “You have two political titans … and now one wants to evict the other.”

“I would say it’s going to be tight as a tick,” added Mac McCorkle, a Duke University professor and former consultant to Democratic Govs. Mike Easley and Beverly Perdue.

It could be among the nation’s most expensive gubernatorial races, due in part to North Carolina’s many television advertising markets. The two candidates combined have raised more than $13 million this cycle, with Cooper ahead. Money from outside allies is also expected to pour in.

The Republican Governors Association already has announced at least $100,000 in online ads. North Carolina is considered the best chance for Democrats this fall to flip a gubernatorial seat a Republican holds.

“North Carolina is the biggest state on the board in 2016,” said Democratic Governors Association spokesman Jared Leopold.

The race could be portrayed as a referendum on the results of the GOP ascendance in state government this decade. McCrory embraces his accomplishments since his 2012 election, citing a lower unemployment rate, recent higher teacher pay, lower tax rates and government efficiency.

“I’m going to run on my record - on our successful track record - and the vision that I have for North Carolina’s future,” McCrory said in a recent interview.

In his primary victory speech, Cooper kept to the narrative that McCrory has helped give disproportionate tax cuts to the wealthy and to corporations, at the expense of the working class and public education.

“Our state is going to be looking for positive leadership and a North Carolina that works for everyone, not just the select few,” Cooper said.

As North Carolina’s gubernatorial elections run with presidential elections, what happens nationally influences their results. This year, Donald Trump is the wild card. McCrory has said he will support the ultimate GOP presidential nominee but has declined specifically answering whether he’d vote for Trump.

Cooper is already linking McCrory and Trump, saying their campaigns are “trying to divide people and turn us against each other.” A GOP split over Trump could hurt McCrory. But Rodriguez said Trump is attracting new voters and should help down-ballot Republicans.

McCrory’s greatest assets may be an improving economy and addressing chronic issues like lines at the Division of Motor Vehicles. But his moderate persona while Charlotte’s mayor has received criticism as governor for signing abortion and election rules legislation a conservative General Assembly passed.

McCrory has tried to burnish a bipartisan image as the chief proponent for a $2 billion bond package voters statewide approved by a wide margin last week.

“We need a governor that will continue this kind of visionary, forward-thinking leadership, focus on solving our state’s problems, and not take us back,” McCrory said in a video he released primary night.

As for Cooper, he’s got support from Democrats concentrated on holding again the reins of power. His campaign has outraised McCrory for the past three reporting cycles. His 30 years of experience as attorney general and a legislator make him extremely knowledgeable of government issues.

But Cooper can be painted as a Raleigh insider, and he hasn’t truly been in a tough statewide campaign in more than a decade. McCrory has been in three since 2008. Cooper also can’t simply criticize Republican rule, McCorkle said: “Roy’s going to have to present a forward-looking vision.” He rolled out an education plan this month.

Both have uncomfortable issues to keep addressing. For McCrory, it’s a flap over a prison maintenance contract held by a friend’s company. For Cooper, it’s state crime lab problems when it was under his authority.

In a statement either candidate could make to supporters, Cooper said: “It’s time for us to come together and get ready for the battle ahead in November, because we know it’s coming.”

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