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Largely Overlooked Nationally, N.C. Senate Race Offers Voters Clear Choices

Political reporters are like Willie Sutton in at least one respect: legend had it that he said he robbed banks because that’s where the money is (he actually didn’t say that); we gravitate to the most competitive political races, because that’s where the suspense – the news – is.

But this election year has generated so many competitive races – for the Senate, House and governorships – in so many parts of the country — we reporters have hardly been able to keep up. This has meant the less-competitive races have been even more overlooked than usual.

And so when I was invited to moderate a televised debate Thursday night between North Carolina’s Republican Sen. Richard Burr and his Democratic challenger, North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, I enthusiastically accepted. It would be a chance to check in on a contest that hasn’t gotten as much national attention as other Senate races (in Nevada, Pennsylvania, Florida, California, Wisconsin, Washington state – the list goes on). But this race features a Republican who’s a 16-year veteran of Washington, running in a year in which Washington experience is seen as a liability. I was curious: why is Richard Burr holding on to a consistent lead? Is Democrat Elaine Marshall making any arguments that resonate in this harsh economic climate?

I’m not sure I’m much closer to the answers to those questions. But after a few days of studying the race and the candidates, and after watching them up close last night, I learned a lot about the choice North Carolina voters face this year.

  • Burr agrees with Republican proposals to roll back federal discretionary domestic spending across the board to 2008 levels, even if it means cutting popular programs like medical research and college loans for middle-class students. Marshall isn’t ready to take such a dramatic step: she wants to examine programs one by one before cutting, and unlike Burr, she favors letting the Bush tax cuts expire on income over $ 250,000 a year. When asked, she also said she “needs to think about it,” before naming large domestic programs she’d be prepared to cut.

  • Burr sticks by his vote in 2008 to support the first big bank-rescue program, also known as TARP; Marshall criticizes it. Burr says her position has been inconsistent, and points out he voted against the second TARP proposal, which included the auto companies.

  • Burr says “everything should be on the table,” when it comes to looking for ways to reduce the federal budget deficit; Marshall agrees with him that she first wants to see the recommendations of the Bowles-Simpson Deficit Reduction Commission, but she seems to be ruling out any future reduction in the retirement age, which determines eligibility for Social Security.

  • Marshall said she believes being gay or lesbian is determined by genetics/biology, and not a choice that individuals make. Burr said he is not sure which it is.

  • Burr wants to see how successful the current U.S. military effort is in Afghanistan, before deciding whether to support a continuation of it; he said he’d base his decision on facts on the ground. Marshall is more focused on ending it, and suggested money now going there would be better spent here in the U.S.

The debate was punctuated with charges back and forth over whether TV ads being aired are accurate. One accused the other of engaging in “gutter” politics. And in the most heated exchange, Marshall called Burr’s view that being gay may be a matter of choice, “wrong-headed and discriminatory.” She added, “we should not be judging people by the color of their hair, the color of their eyes, or the color of their skin, or other factors over which they have no control over … what you are talking about is governmental discrimination.” Burr looked directly at Marshall and responded sharply: “I’m not sure I referred to somebody’s skin color or their hair color. This is a very specific group of individuals. I’ve made it very clear what my position is. Don’t bring race into this.”

It was an hour-long exchange that the Raleigh News & Observer headlined on its front page, saying it “exposes deep divisions.”

For the third time in just 11 days, these two candidates put themselves on the line, to answer unrehearsed questions. Even if the race isn’t drawing the attention of most national news media, the voters of North Carolina were given a chance to learn more about how the candidates differ, enough that they could see they have a choice. That’s what elections are all about.

*Follow Judy Woodruff on Twitter*.

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