- Associated Press - Monday, October 24, 2016

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - North Carolina’s gubernatorial race will become more expensive and could get nastier in its final two weeks.

Although the presidential campaign has dominated the political discussion, the fight between Republican incumbent Pat McCrory and Democratic challenger Roy Cooper has kept the voters’ attention. Credit that to House Bill 2, legislation signed by McCrory and approved by the right-leaning General Assembly that limits LGBT protections and has awakened the left against him.

With their televised debates behind them, it’s clear what the two political heavyweights believe are their most effective punches and which blows they’re trying to block.

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TALKING POINTS

As McCrory sees it, he should get re-elected because he and other Republicans turned around the state economy. The unemployment rate is now half of what it was when he took office in early 2013. They lowered income tax rates, eliminated $2.6 billion owed the federal government for unemployment benefit claims and generated budget surpluses. Public school teachers have been getting raises.

“We’ve had one of the greatest economic recoveries in the United States of America,” McCrory said during their final debate. “Our economy is so much better than it was three years ago.”

Cooper, the current attorney general, pledges to halt hard-right conservative policies that he says have harmed North Carolina’s status as a progressive state. He says state incomes are lagging compared to those nationwide and argues that while McCrory slashed the corporate tax rate, middle-class people felt the pinch from sales taxes and the loss of tax credits.

McCrory could have raised teacher salaries more if he hadn’t endorsed such tax policies, according to Cooper.

“We need a governor who knows how to rebuild our communities,” Cooper said, and “we need a governor who knows how to rebuild North Carolina’s reputation.”

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HOUSE BILL 2

Hardly an event for McCrory goes by without questions on House Bill 2, the law he signed in March that limits local government non-discrimination ordinances for LGBT people and directs which bathrooms in schools and government buildings transgender people can use.

“I think you all are infatuated with this whole subject and I’ve said so much about it,” he told reporters recently. “Why don’t we move on, because it’s not the most important subject in North Carolina.”

But the law is likely to define his first - or only - term. McCrory has blamed many groups - Charlotte city leaders, gay rights organizations, and even Cooper - for either forcing the hand of legislators to pass the law or blocking compromises to remove it. While they may have played a role, McCrory signed the law and faces the criticism.

While Cooper says McCrory is the one who keeps bringing up House Bill 2, Cooper sees his call to repeal it a winning issue and keeps talking about it himself.

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CRIME LAB

Cooper and his campaign have chronicled his actions to improve the North Carolina State Crime Laboratory, but ads by McCrory and the Republican Governors Association on the lab show they see it as a campaign weakness for Cooper.

The attorney general says he helped clear a statewide backlog of more than 5,000 untested rape evidence kits last decade and ordered the independent review of cases in the lab’s blood-testing unit, most of which occurred before he took office in 2001.

“We found the problem, we fixed it,” Cooper said on TV. “We didn’t blame it on somebody else like Gov. McCrory.”

But McCrory says the crime lab remains broken, and that is why local law enforcement departments have been building their own labs. Media outlets also have reported on testing delays, sometimes leading to dropped prosecutions.

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WHAT’S AHEAD

Cooper and McCrory primarily will use the airwaves and social media for messaging in the final days.

An estimated $22 million has been spent airing 44,000 broadcast TV ads for the governor’s race since the March 15 primary until last week, according to data released by the Center for Public Integrity. Cooper’s fundraising advantage over McCrory since early 2015 has paid off, with his campaign airing twice as many ads as McCrory.

GOP allies have come to McCrory’s aid with TV spots, but several outside groups opposing McCrory are running just as many. McCrory has gotten news media coverage during the state’s response to violent protests in Charlotte last month and to Hurricane Matthew. But his campaign has gone further, airing an ad highlighting his work while attacking Cooper. Cooper’s campaign says it’s McCrory who has made the storm political with the commercial.

Americans for Prosperity, the Human Rights Campaign and AFL-CIO also have intense get-out-the-vote efforts for or against the candidates.

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