Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Letter to Erskine Bowles from us: Run

Tomorrow's editorial today:

To: Erskine Bowles
From: Us
Subject: Run

Dear Erskine,

We hear you’re thinking hard about whether to run for governor of North Carolina.

We fully understand your ambivalence. Politics is a snake pit, and you might think you have better things to do than subject yourself to that venom. You’ve run for the U.S. Senate twice in North Carolina and lost both times, and you were subjected to negative advertising that attacked your reputation. Besides, you are 66, you’ve been working hard for more than four decades, and you’ve earned a little downtime with your kids and grandkids.

We also understand the tug you’re feeling. That tug to public service. A calling, instilled in you since you were a boy, of using your talents to give back to the community. We know that as a Greensboro native who has spent much of his life in North Carolina, you love this state, and leading it to its potential is a high calling indeed.

Think about what North Carolina needs right now, and whether your strengths and experience prepare you to tackle those needs:

Jobs. With a stubbornly high unemployment rate, this must be a governor’s top priority. It will require more than incentives to land this or that project. It will require someone who knows how to create and sustain an environment that attracts companies for the long haul and boosts small businesses.

A responsible state budget that is balanced both in an accounting sense and in its priorities. North Carolina needs to make smart investments while being cognizant of the tax burden residents face in a sluggish economy. It needs to reform its outdated tax code and make sure that its spending, especially on education but throughout state government, is neither short-sighted nor wasteful. That will demand someone who understands how to balance a budget.

A governor who can work constructively with, but also serve as a check on, an active Republican legislature. That calls for someone who has shown the ability to work across the aisle.

A strong university system. Maintaining the University of North Carolina system as one of the nation’s best requires state leaders who understand its history, its mission and the importance of stout public support.

Clear-eyed leadership beholden to no one ideology or set of special interests.
Know anyone who might qualify?

You spent decades in private business. You led the Small Business Administration. You were the White House Chief of Staff, and as a Democrat worked with Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich to produce the last balanced budget America has seen. You were the president of the UNC system. You co-chaired a national deficit panel, the Bowles-Simpson commission, that was unafraid to both raise taxes and cut spending, angering partisans on all sides.

Even if you run, we don’t know yet who will emerge as the strongest candidate for governor. It’s a long campaign. But that campaign should offer voters strong choices and candidates who can raise the level of discourse.

Religious or not, many people of great talent feel the admonition from the gospel of Luke: To whom much is given, much shall be required. In momentous times, people of great talent step up to serve.

Is Romney/Gingrich replay of Carter/Kennedy?

A lot of people probably don't remember the bruising fight between Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1980. But the Mitt Romney/Newt Gingrich battle royal is drawing comparisons.

In the Carter/Kennedy dustup, then President Carter set the tone before Kennedy entered the race, famously saying, "If Kennedy runs, I'll whip his ass." Kennedy retaliated with some nastiness of his own. Carter, who put the Iowa caucuses on the map in the 1976 campaign, easily won the state again in '80. Kennedy grabbed some big states including Pennsylvania and New York. But in the end, Carter won most of the races and the nomination. He lost to Ronald Reagan in the general election. The feud between the two lasted a long time, as a story by CBS News' Peter Maer recounts.

The fight between Gingrich and Romney has gotten nastier and nastier each day, with the final days getting really mean. Jon Ward of the HuffPost said in a piece published today that Gingrich had unleashed "wild attacks" on Romney.

All's not lost for Gingrich, even if he loses big to Mitt Romney in the Florida primary today. He still has people singing his praises. One of them today was former Reagan economic advisor Art Laffer, who lauded Gingrich’s tax plan in an op-ed Tuesday Wall Street Journal oped. He called it “significantly better” than what Mitt Romney has proposed.

Laffer endorsed Gingrich in December as well as Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan earlier in the fall. In Tuesday's oped, he called the plan the only fiscal policy that would effectively boost the nation’s economy and spur growth.

Speaking of Herman Cain, whose candidacy imploded several weeks ago after allegations of past sexual harassment surfaced, he endorsed Gingrich Saturday but said today he "would be very comfortable" with Romney if he were the nominee.

But as voting was going on in Florida, with his endorsed candidate appearing to be on the losing end, Cain was still out campaigning - for himself. Not for president but for his "Solutions Revolution."

Cain sent out e-mail appeals today, saying: "This Solutions Revolution is our chance to send a message that we are done with gutter politics and back-room deals. This is an opportunity for us to send a message to Washington, to the media, and to the political elites that "We the People" are in charge of this country and we are fed-up with politics as usual. We want results!...I cannot do this alone. I need your help... Please consider sending your most generous gift today."

Run, Erskine, Run?
Even before Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx said no to a gubernatorial bid all eyes were firmly cast on Erskine Bowles. Rob Schofield of the Progress Pulse asks "Could the third time be the charm for Bowles?" (alluding to Bowles' two previous runs for Senate) and gives his top three reasons why Bowles should throw his hat in the race - even though Schofield dubs him "a fairly unusual would-be Democratic nominee for Governor."
Schofield's three reasons for Bowles to run?

"#1 – There is no other obvious choice. Lt. Governor Walter Dalton may be the official #2 in the Democratic political line-up, but truth be told, his claim on that position is very tenuous. He is three years into a mostly ceremonial job that he won over token opposition.

"#2- Most of the other potential candidates do little to stir progressive hearts.

"#3 – The grown-up factor – Last but not least is what we might call the “grown up factor.” There’s good reason that Republicans fear Bowles; With his corporate ties, national political experience, budget-cutting credentials, and international prominence he would be a true heavyweight in any election. By comparison, GOP presumptive nominee Pat McCrory looks like a little leaguer..."

Read more at the Progressive Pulse.

Posted by Fannie Flono

Foxx says no? No surprise. Winning is hard

So, Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx decided not to run for governor. A surprise? Hardly. Becoming a governor isn't easy. It takes superb organization, lots of money, and great timing. Just ask Pat McCrory or Richard Vinroot, two other Charlotte mayors who've pitched their hats into the ring previously. None of those things weighed in Foxx's favor this year. McCrory, of course, is making another run at the governor's post this year.

If he had decided to run, Foxx's candidacy would have presented another chance for the North Carolinians to break down a barrier. Until Bev Perdue, N.C. voters had not elected a woman chief executive. And they have never elected a non-white chief executive.

North Carolina joins almost all of the 50 states in that regard. South Carolina, interestingly, broke that barrier in the modern era by electing Republican Nikki Haley as chief executive. And it got a two-fer in the process with Haley being a woman and an Indian American. Republican Bobby Jindal, Louisiana's governor, was the first Indian American elected a chief executive of a U.S. state.

There have been only four black governors in the United States, but just two elected ones. Democrat Douglas Wilder was elected governor of Virginia, serving from 1990-94; Democrat Deval Patrick was elected governor of Massachusetts in 2006 and was relected in 2010. Both Republican P.B.S. Pinchback, governor of Louisiana from December 9, 1872 - January 13, 1873, and Democrat David Paterson, governor of New York from March 17, 2007 - 2011 were serving as lieutenant governor and succeeded incumbent governors who were forced from office.

Women have fared better. Thirty-five have served or are serving as governors of U.S. states, including six currently. But as I mentioned in a column last week, the number of females in elected office is declining nationwide.

Posted by Associate Editor Fannie Flono

Three costly words for Mitt? 'I didn't inherit'

Good morning. Welcome to O-Pinion, the Observer editorial board's place for commentary and discussion. I'm associate editor Fannie Flono, your host today.

It's election day in Florida and early signs point to a huge Mitt Romney win over Newt Gingrich in the Republican primary. But you never know. Voters are still voting, and nothing's over until the voting and counting are done.

Still, Mitt Romney has a commanding lead on Gingrich, his closest Florida rival, according to the National Journal. The Quinnipiac University poll had him up 14 points over Gingrich at 43 percent to 29 percent. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, and former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., were each at 11 percent. A Suffolk University poll had Romney with almost a majority of expected voters, 47 percent to Gingrich's 27 percent.

Still Kelli Goff thinks Romney has already sealed his fate as a loser if he gets the GOP nod. In a piece for the liberal Huffington Post , she writes about what she calls "The three words that will cost Mitt Romney the election." Those words: "I didn't inherit."

She takes note of previous presidential races and the seminal moments and phrases that have plagued candidates: The 1980 campaign, she notes, had the query from Ronald Reagan, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" In 1988, George Bush the elder skewered Democrat Michael Dukakis with the campaign ad about prison inmate Willie Horton. 1992, Bill Clinton had a good moment, "It's the economy stupid" and a not-so good one, "I didn't inhale."

Romney has stumbled in dealing with questions about his wealth at a time when rage against the widening income disparity in the U.S. has taken root with the Occupy movement. Couple that with a style that's often wooden and makes him come off as fake and unbelievable, and his "I didn't inherit" rang hollow to some. Goff says in her piece, "Within minutes of Romney debuting the 'I didn't inherit' line nationally, the New York Times had already debunked it with his own words. According to an earlier interview, he did inherit money upon his father's death. Romney claims he and his wife chose to donate the money to charity. That makes sense, considering the younger Romney was nearly 50 when his father passed and was already extremely wealthy by that point, helped along in no small part by his father's wealth and connections. Besides his entry into Harvard, which has served as a finishing school for the sons and daughters of political leaders of both major American political parties over the years, his father fronted he and his wife the funds for their first home."

Romney will have bigger issues to overcome should he become the GOP nominee, as his opponents in this bruising battle for the Republican crown keep pointing out. Romneycare and Obamacare, they note, are twin sisters. Still, the wealth issue - or more to the point, how Romney has handled the issue with the public - could remain a pebble in his shoe, creating a persistent ache all season long.

Speaking of Romneycare, Gingrich has his own questions to answer about his support of a health care individual mandate, according to the conservative Weekly Standard. Here's the recently discovered audio clip from May of 2009. His campaign is defending his past support as only a "conceptual discussion." Ummm.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Enforce ordinance as written, but no more

Tuesday's Observer editorial:

Unless you’re a news junkie, you’ve probably been only vaguely aware of the fledgling and listless Occupy Charlotte movement. A few dozen protesters have been camped out on the Old City Hall lawn since last fall, generally behaving themselves but giving limited voice to their anti-one-percent message. So their dispersal by Charlotte police Monday may hardly seem momentous.

But while the stage was tiny, the principles at issue, and the implications for Charlotte’s near future, were significant.

City leaders and police are in a tough spot. With the Democratic National Convention arriving here in seven months, they need ordinances that keep the public safe and prevent Charlotte from making national headlines for all the wrong reasons. They also need to uphold the U.S. Constitution, the very First Amendment of which gives people the right to peaceably assemble. That’s a difficult balance.

Charlotte’s City Council made a good effort, by and large, to strike that balance when it revised its crowd-control ordinances last week. Those revisions did give police overly broad powers to search every handbag and backpack. Banning protesters from sleeping on public property, however, was sensible. New York, Oakland and other cities have found that people living and sleeping in campsites on public property can evolve into unruly, dangerous mobs.

That’s what the City Council was seeking to avoid when it softened its proposed ordinance. Initially, council members considered banning tents, tarps and other temporary structures altogether. Trying to strike that balance, though, they changed the wording to outlaw only tents used “for living accommodation purposes such as sleeping, or making preparations to sleep … or storing personal belongings.”

In other words: Protest all you want, but no living (and sleeping) on public property. That’s a sensible restriction. One needn’t sleep to protest or peaceably assemble.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police, though, overstepped their authority Monday because they removed all tents, whether they would be used for sleeping or not. Police Chief Rodney Monroe said they did so “going on history, based on prior observations.” That is, protesters had been sleeping in the tents for months. He cared not whether they would be sleeping in them going forward.

But it was legal for protesters to sleep in them until now, because the new ordinance didn’t take effect until Monday. When we asked about that, Monroe said only: “We’ll leave that up to the courts to decide.” He would not answer questions about whether a protester could pitch a tent today, as long as he does not sleep in it.

(We should emphasize how well police performed Monday. While their reading of the ordinance is mistaken, their calm, skilled dismantling of the site was highly professional. Protesters, too, were peaceful throughout.)

Whatever one might believe should be allowed, the city ordinance does not forbid tents or canopies unless they are used for sleeping. Going forward, if protesters – from Occupy or the tea party or any other group – assemble on public property and use tarps to protect themselves from the elements, they are violating nothing. Police need to understand that and the City Council and city attorneys should make sure they do.

The gay marriage amendment, post-Perdue

Does Gov. Bev Perdue's decision not to run for reelection bode well for opponents of N.C.'s gay marriage amendment?

Common sense says yes - a contested Democratic primary brings more Democrats to the polls on May 8, when voters will also decide if the state needs a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages. Deomcrats largely support gay rights, with the historic exception of blacks, who tend to be more conservative on the issue. So Perdue's departure equals good news, right?

"I'm sure that supporters of the amendment thought that, strategically, putting the question on the May ballot was their best chance," said Michael Bitzer, a professor of politics and history at Catawba College, told the Associated Press. "That strategy just got blown out of the water."

But the numbers - as of now - say it won't matter.

Public Policy Polling's Tom Jensen broke things down for us this afternoon. Right now, he says, 64 percent of Democrats in the state support legal recognition for gays in the form of gay marriage or civil unions. "The more of those folks who come out, the greater the chance the amendment fails," Jensen says.

But: If the contested primary causes a 10-point increase in Democratic turnout, that would shave only 2-4 points off the marriage amendment's margin for passage. Right now, it's passing by 22 percent, according to PPP's polling.

"Every little thing helps, but this is more of a minor game-changer than a major one," Jensen says.

Still, only 40 percent of North Carolinians say that gays should have no legal recognition, be it marriage or civil unions, which suggests that amendment opponents can make up ground if they can get the message across that its passage impacts civil unions, as well.

Those discussions are starting to rev up. The Observer's Michael Gordon reported today on two Charlotte ministers who spoke out Sunday, each on one side of the issue. The Raleigh News & Observer reported today on a Carrboro anti-amendment meeting.

Bonus reading assignment on the issue: The New York Times Frank Bruni has some problems with the insistence of gays to show that science says they were "born this way." Bruni understands that having such genetic evidence of homosexuality would serve to make bigotry even more inexcusable, but he wonders if the search for that proof misses a larger point.

Says Bruni, who is gay:

The born-this-way approach carries an unintended implication that the behavior of gays and lesbians needs biological grounding to evade condemnation. Why should it?

Our laws safeguard religious freedom, and that’s not because there’s a Presbyterian, Buddhist or Mormon gene. There’s only a tradition and theology that you elect or decline to follow. But this country has deemed worshiping in a way that feels consonant with who you are to be essential to a person’s humanity. So it’s protected.

Our laws also safeguard the right to bear arms: not exactly a biological imperative.

Among adults, the right to love whom you’re moved to love — and to express it through sex and maybe, yes, marriage — is surely as vital to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as a Glock.
Peter St. Onge

Why Occupy Charlotte had to pack up

Since Occupy Charlotte pitched its first tent at Old City Hall last fall, it has been afflicted with few of the health and lawlessness issues that the movement suffered in other cities. So it should be no surprise that thus far, the police clearing of the encampment today has been accomplished without the violence and mass arrests we’ve seen elsewhere.

Both police and members of the movement deserve credit for this. Their relationship has had tension and disagreements, including this morning, but little more. At least some of that is due to numbers - Occupy Charlotte rarely boasted more than a few dozen protesters at Old City Hall, making it less likely to face sanitary problems and loss of internal control. The group also distanced itself from a flag burning in December, a message that it would rather do simply what it came to do - protest economic unfairness and the powerlessness Americans feel over the country's corporate interests.

So why is Occupy losing its overnight privileges here? The group is a victim of another force beyond its control - the approaching Democratic National Convention. Charlotte’s leaders, looking at Occupy’s difficulties elsewhere and the impending arrival of thousands of protesters here - wisely decided to get proactive about its public areas. Taking a cue from other cities, Charlotte banned semi-permanent structures and sleeping on public property in an effort to make mass overnight camping difficult.

That new rules might have come anyway - Republicans were a little too grumpy about the tromping on the Old City Hall lawn - but the DNC made it necessary. Although we’ve had some issues with some of what police will be allowed to do in September, we think the overnight camping measures will respect the free speech of protesters here while protecting the safety of our citizens and interests of our businesses.

The rules passed last week, and police began enforcement this morning. And maybe it's unfair that Occupy Charlotte, a movement that caused little more than inconvenience and a muddy lawn, now must take down its tents. But what was legal last fall is no longer. We hope, though, that police will allow protesters some reasonable protection from the elements, such as portable canopies.

The movement here now faces choices about if and how it will drum its message of financial inequality. It’s become a cliche now, each time a camp is cleared in a U.S. city, to talk about Occupy’s “victory” - putting that topic at the front of the national discussion. Although we haven’t always agreed - or sometimes even understood - exactly what the protesters want, we welcome the voice they’ve had here in a legitimate debate over our financial future. We hope they continue to use it.

Peter St. Onge

Friday, January 27, 2012

Jacksonville GOP debate: Winners and losers

In the last debate before the Florida GOP primary, Mitt Romney verbally thrashed Newt Gingrich last night in Jacksonville, stunning the former House speaker and reclaiming the momentum Gingrich had grabbed in South Carolina.

It was the kind of performance a fretted Republican establishment had been wondering if Romney could deliver, and it came just at the right time for his campaign. Polls late this week showed that Republican pushback against a potential Gingrich nomination had stunted his surge in Florida, just as it did in Iowa. (The most recent example: A Quinnipiac poll this morning shows Romney beating Gingrich 38-29 after leading by two percentage points just two days ago.)

But instead of playing it safe, Romney pounced on Gingrich from the beginning, calling Gingrich's remarks on Romney being anti-immigrant "repulsive" and asking for an apology. Gingrich was clearly thrown by the aggressiveness, as he was when Romney invited Gingrich to back up his campaign trail snarkiness about Romney's money being in off-shore accounts. From then on, even when Romney gave Gingrich clear openings - and there were a few - Gingrich was hesitant, almost afraid of a possible counterpunch.

Romney had his stumbles, including telling Santorum that health care wasn't something to get so upset about, but he was just the right mix of combative and eloquent about policies and issues. For Republicans worried about Romney sharing a debate stage with President Barack Obama, it was an encouraging performance.

Santorum, again, had a good night, clearly contrasting his conservative cred against the others on the stage. He continues to seem too alarmist about foreign threats, and that shrillness is made even more stark by Ron Paul's grandfatherly dismissiveness about the dangers facing the U.S. Paul had another fine debate, perhaps his best, mixing charm with more precise explanations about the reduced role government should play in domestic and foreign policy.

Gingrich? Well, he was just flat after a week of attacking Romney on the trail. We'll see today how he tries to compensate.

The pundits' consensus: Romney had his best debate.

*Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post agrees that Romney was the clear winner, although he noted some tone-deafness when Romney said he would "fire" anyone who told him a moon colony was a good idea, as Gingrich has suggested. Gingrich, says Cillizza, looked less prepared and "was just plain off his game."

*Time.com's Mark Halperin, who passes out grades after each debate, gives Romney ("sharp, commanding, wily") an A. Santorum ("still not dynamic enough") a B-, Gingrich ("unable to find his groove") a C-, and Paul ("failed to highlight his positions") a C-.

*The conservative Weekly Standard's John McCormack says that Romney and Santorum stood out - and that the pair provided the most substantial policy disagreements.

*The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn says that, as with candidate Obama in 2008, Romney has been made a better debater by his early poor showings.

-Peter St. Onge

Thursday, January 26, 2012

A governor who could never quite connect

Tomorrow's editorial today:

Gov. Bev Perdue’s statement Thursday about why she won’t run for re-election ironically illustrated one reason she’s so far behind in the polls: She frequently gives voters the uneasy sense that she’s not being fully straight with them.

Trailing in voter surveys, dogged by legal questions, forced to cut spending in a sluggish economy, pitted against an intransigent legislature, Perdue said her decision was all about helping children.

“The thing I care about most right now is making sure that our schools and schoolchildren do not continue to be the victims of shortsighted legislative actions and severe budget cuts inflicted by a legislative majority with the wrong priorities,” Perdue, a Democrat, said. “Therefore, I am announcing today that I have decided not to seek re-election. I hope this decision will open the door to an honest and bipartisan effort to help our schools.”

Does anyone really believe this stuff? Making herself a lame duck will suddenly persuade Republican legislative leaders to raise the sales tax she wants?

Perdue’s historic decision – she is the first N.C. governor not to seek re-election since that became allowed in 1977 – was surprising because it seemed to contradict her nature as a fighter unafraid of a challenge. It was that nature that made her North Carolina’s first female governor and lieutenant governor.

But this year’s campaign would have been her toughest yet. Republican Pat McCrory has led her in the polls by 10 or more points and her approval/disapproval numbers have at times been abysmal.

Some of that, to be sure, was rotten luck. Perdue was elected governor in November 2008 amid the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. She faced high unemployment and an unbending legislature, and presided over hundreds of millions of dollars in budget cuts. Few governors would emerge popular from that.

She deserves credit, by and large, for fighting for education, from pre-kindergarten to the University of North Carolina system. She cast many needed vetoes, including against a nationally unique anti-abortion bill and an overly austere 2011 budget, and she has been a better friend to Charlotte than most of her predecessors.

Even so, the questionable actions that undermined her reelection chances are too numerous to list here. Among them: Campaign finance irregularities that led to indictments against her supporters; the appearance of cronyism at the state Highway Patrol and the state parole commission; disappearances from the state at critical times; and a gaffe about her desire to suspend elections for two years.

Now she’s stepping aside, a move that could increase Democratic voter turnout in the May primary, altering the vote on a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. It will force the Democratic nominee to take a stand on the sales tax hike she will press. And it clears the way for other Democrats, including some who can present McCrory a tougher challenge.

Charlotte’s Erskine Bowles would have an outstanding chance of defeating McCrory, and also would have the potential to be an exceptional governor. Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx said Thursday he’s considering a run. He’d be smart to wait but wouldn’t violate any compact with Charlotte voters by jumping in.

Foxx and others won’t have long to decide. But one thing we know right now: Perdue’s departure, for whatever the reason, changes everything.

Republican expert: Dems better off without Perdue

Gov. Bev Perdue’s decision not to seek re-election actually helps Democrats – which may be why she did it. Perdue’s “negatives,” meaning the percent of people who disapprove of the job she is doing, are very high and she was going to lose to Republican Pat McCrory unless a lot changed.

McCrory will still be ahead of just about any other Democrat who emerges. But that candidate will have a chance of catching up, whereas Perdue wouldn’t have, says longtime Republican strategist Carter Wrenn.

Perdue is just too unpopular, Wrenn said. Other potential Democratic candidates would trail McCrory initially not because the public doesn’t like them so much as the public doesn’t know them. And that’s a big difference, Wrenn says.

“There’s being behind and being behind,” says Wrenn, a strategist for Sen. Jesse Helms and other Republicans the past few decades. “Perdue’s behind because people disapprove of her policies and to some extent they question her ability. That’s a hard thing to overcome politically. Being behind just because you’re not as well known, a lot of people have overcome that. It’s a mountain, it takes money, but a lot of people have done it." He added: "Having a candidate without those negatives has to be a move in the right direction.”

Perdue’s withdrawal changes everything for McCrory, Wrenn says. McCrory vs. Perdue was going to provide a clear choice for voters. “Now,” Wrenn says, “he’s liable to be in a race where the differences between him and the Democrat are not so clear. That changes everything.”

Erskine Bowles, Wrenn added, “would be an incredibly strong candidate.”

Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm in Raleigh, said Perdue has been one of the nation's most unpopular governors. "Democrats' chances of holding on are still less than 50 percent," PPP director Tom Jensen said. "But they're better than they were with Perdue."

-- Taylor Batten

Will Foxx run for governor?

Updated at 1:30 p.m.

Gov. Bev Perdue's decision not to run for reelection could spark a scramble among Democrats eager to replace her. So who might step up?

Anthony Foxx? Maybe.

The Charlotte mayor and his administrative assistant have not yet returned our calls this morning, so we don't know his thinking. It's easy to dismiss the idea; Foxx is just starting his second term as mayor. So he could appear not seasoned enough to some voters. And he would of course have to wrestle with any anti-Charlotte sentiment that still lingers around the state. The N.C. political records are littered with Charlotte mayors who have failed in their run for statewide office.

More daunting than any of that, perhaps, are the odds Foxx would face. Former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory has enjoyed a healthy lead over Perdue and he would certainly start with a sizable edge over Foxx as well.

But before eliminating Foxx from contention consider two things: 1) He's ambitious. His desire for higher office has rarely been questioned. And 2) The election is Nov. 6. That's two months after Foxx will be at the peak of his political career to this point. The Democratic National Convention, in Charlotte Sept. 3-6, will put the national spotlight on Foxx, who is leading Charlotte's convention efforts and who will almost certainly have a prominent speaking role in front of thousands of people and millions of television viewers. If he does well there, he could ride a wave of momentum that would boost him on Election Day.

1:30 p.m. update: Some readers today said that Foxx said last fall he would not run for governor this year. In fact, Foxx only said he would not challenge Perdue for governor. That pledge says nothing about what he would do if she's not running. Read our O-pinion blog post from that time.

The Democrats' strongest candidate, however, would be Charlotte's Erskine Bowles. The former UNC system president and Clinton chief of staff has been mentioned, wistfully but only half-jokingly, as a potential candidate for president. That won't happen this year, but Perdue's departure clears the way for him to run for governor. Bowles has the resume, the moderation, the political wisdom and the fundraising chops that a Democrat would need to have any chance in this race. No other potential Democratic candidate matches Bowles on all those measures. Bowles has not returned a call this morning.

Others in the wings: Rep. Bill Faison, D-Orange, who will almost certainly announce his candidacy in coming days. Attorney General Roy Cooper, who has long failed to live up to others' aspirations for him. Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton ranks No. 2 to Perdue in North Carolina's executive branch, but he would have little chance of beating McCrory. (1:30 p.m. update: News14's Tim Boyum tweets that sources tell him Dalton is getting in and could announce as soon as today.)

Public Policy Polling in Raleigh polled on this question last October. Bowles tied McCrory at 42 percent. Cooper trailed McCrory 42-39. Faison and Dalton trailed by double digits. McCrory's strength, PPP says, is with independents, who overwhelmingly like him. Those voters are crucial in this race, and Bowles would have the strongest chance of attracting them.

-- Taylor Batten

Perdue now a lame duck, but also free to crusade

Gov. Bev Perdue's announcement expected later today that she will not seek reelection is stunning. Perdue has spent almost her entire adult life in politics and had not given any indication that she would not seek a second term as governor. No incumbent N.C. governor has ever declined to seek a second term since the constitution was changed in 1977 to allow that.

Perhaps Perdue, a Democrat, will shed more light on her thinking when she makes it official later today. She clearly faced a stiff test from Republican and former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory. She has trailed him in every poll since shortly after taking office and her approval numbers have at times been abysmal. The continuing sluggish economy and shorter Obama coattails than she enjoyed in 2008 were going to make her reelection tough.

Even so, a loss was not such a foregone conclusion that many people expected her not to try. Perhaps her internal polling numbers are even worse than ones that have been reported. Perhaps she's just beaten down by the difficulty of the job. Perhaps there's another shoe to drop in investigations into her campaign and its fundraising and reporting.

Her announcement will surely set off a scramble by Democrats to replace her on the ballot. Rep. Bill Faison, D-Orange, will almost certainly run. He has been laying the groundwork for months. But Perdue's departure will attract many other Democrats who might have otherwise waited until 2016.

We guess Perdue had already made this decision last week when she called for raising taxes in an election year. That's typically political suicide. But if her campaign was already dead, no more harm could be done to her electoral prospects. She'll be a lame duck for the next 10 months. On the other hand, she'll also be free to crusade for everything she truly believes is right, with no political calculations required.

-- Taylor Batten

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Dist. 6's Bill James a 'virtual commissioner,' a 'RINO'?

The zingers thrown in the Republican presidential race have been hot and heavy. But firecrackers are already going off in a local race - the GOP District 6 primary for Mecklenburg County commissioner. It's hardly a surprise with incumbent Bill James in the mix. His blunt, often racially tinged comments have made him by his own admission an often polarizing figure. He hasn't faced primary competition in 10 years but Ed Driggs, a retired stock analyst and banker, announced Tuesday he would run against James.

On his website, Driggs' states his mission as this: “To promote Economic Opportunity by keeping government lean and efficient, investing wisely in our schools, and maintaining the rule of law. I am running to give the voters of District 6 a choice. It is time for more effective conservative government in South Mecklenburg!

The race, which is unofficial since filing isn't until next month, has gotten off to a fiery start with the two already trading accusations. James has attacked Driggs' voting record in local primary elections. Public records that go back to 2004 show Driggs voted in all of the general elections except 2009 but only voted in the 2007 primary."Republican primaries are made up of the faithful - they come out rain or shine," James said recently. "If a guy is going to run to represent the most Republican district of the county, he's got to be Republican enough to vote (in the primary)." James called Driggs "AWOL."

Driggs' campaign shot back with this: "In reply to my opponent’s comment on my voting record...

"Given the very low turnout in primaries, it is ridiculous to suggest that anyone who has missed them must be a Liberal or should not be a Conservative candidate for office. Is this the level of debate we can expect in this campaign?

"Since my opponent introduces the concept of AWOL, let’s take a look at his attendance record as a sitting Commissioner." Driggs then listed a series of events that he says James did not attend.

"The list goes on and on. The truth is, “Virtual Commissioner” James is almost never seen in public and is never going to win an attendance contest. Mr. James is the RINO…A REPRESENTATIVE IN NAME ONLY."

Virtual Commissioner? RINO? Ouch!

Driggs also responded to a charge that he was not a conservative since he did not vote for John Lassiter: "John Lassiter is on my Committee. He knows I have the greatest respect for him as person and a public servant. When he ran in 2009, I was not focused on the race because my 85 year old mother had had major surgery and was in very grave condition."

The Observer editorial board hasn't been a fan of James, whose inflammatory, demeaning words have been criticized even by his fellow Republicans. In 2008, 20 then current and former Republican officials even issued a statement that said they "fully and completely censure" James for comments he made. Among the signers were then Mayor Pat McCrory and former mayors Richard Vinroot and Ken Harris.

So we think competition for the seat is good news. If Driggs files, the voters will indeed have a choice. However they decide, the race promises to be a humdinger!

Posted by Associate Editor Fannie Flono

Obama: 'Fighting words' or 'unremarkable'?

Good morning. Welcome to O-Pinion, the Observer editorial board's online center for commentary, discussion and debate. I'm associate editor Fannie Flono and I'll be your host today.

Of course, the president's State of the Union address is getting the lion's share of political buzz though it's getting upstaged a bit by news that just before President Obama gave the speech the Navy SEALs he praised in that talk had just conducted another successful clandestine operation - the rescue of two aid workers being held hostage by Somalians. The Navy SEAL group also conducted the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Obama didn't give a clue during his speech of the hostage rescue and that reminded folks of his unflappableness at a press dinner just before the Bin Laden operation took place. He's shown he is calm under fire and he can keep a secret.

But about that speech, liberals were deeming it "Fighting Words" as Obama touted "the state of our Union is getting stronger," and said, "as long as I'm president, I will work with anyone in this chamber to build on this momentum. But I intend to fight obstruction with action, and I will oppose any effort to return to the very same policies that brought on this economic crisis in the first place."

On the conservative side, the Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes had this to say about President Barack Obama in an item titled: "An Utterly Unremarkable Address": "There were some nice patriotic touches, a passel of small proposals, and old ideas like soaking the rich in President Obama’s State of the Union Address. But mostly the speech consisted of an effort to make a big deal out of not much."

The Standard's Bill Kristol took on Obama's military comparisons: "Let’s think about an America that looked more like the military. That America would have a culture that’s at times tough and even harsh. It would have a mode of organization that’s strictly hierarchical and at times unforgiving. It would feature a regimen that weeds out those not up to the task and subordinate individual comfort to the achievement of a difficult mission. But that isn’t the America Obama wants to bring within reach. That isn’t the kind of America Obama’s policies seek to produce. Obama’s America is soft, understanding, forgiving, and entitled."

The Republican presidential candidates took their shots at Obama too:
Former congressman Rick Santorum: "From beginning to end, the American people heard more of the same - empty promises and grand platitudes that will do nothing to help the millions of Americans who are unemployed or under employed find a good paying job."
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich called the speech "left-wing populist warfare": "The rhetoric was terrific. His actions haven’t been. I find the gap between President Obama's words and his deeds to be astounding. He ran on bringing us together, yet last night he seemed to set up a year of divisiveness, of getting nothing done.”

Did you miss the Tea Party response from former pizza mogul and GOP candidate Herman Cain who suspended his candidacy? A lot of people did. Here's the luffington Post's Jason Linkins' take: "Herman Cain improved on the performance of his predecessor, Michele Bachmann, and managed to deliver the standard Tea Party talking points against the Obama administration, but he didn't do much to prove the necessity of a Tea Party rebuttal."

Gov. Mitch Daniels got good marks for his Republican response even from a liberal pundit, Chris Matthews: "I really liked that speech," he said, saying that Daniels displayed "Midwestern conservatism of the best kind" and "recognized that the rich can't plunder the poor anymore." While dismissing what he called the "bromides and idiomatic crap that he threw in there to make everybody happy," Matthews said that he now understood "why people like Mitch Daniels."

There's some intriguing commentary on Gingrich out there. This one from Michael Hirsh in the National Journal, called "Contemplating a President Gingrich" is getting some eyes. In it, Hirsch says, "Almost anyone who's covered Newt Gingrich for any number of years -- I have since the '90s -- has found it difficult to imagine that the country is so pathologically bent out of shape that Newt could end up as president...But maybe we really should think about the prospect of a Gingrich presidency, simply by default. The first reason was the appearance of Calm, Reasonable Newt at last night's debate in Florida. Obviously Gingrich and his handlers have agreed he will need to suppress his true extreme self if he's to get to the White House. ... The second reason is that it's no longer deniable that Mitt Romney has a tin ear for the ages, and that what once seemed a golden resume has turned toxic...Among his fellow patricians, Mitt is so out of touch he makes George H.W. Bush look like a man who really did eat pork rinds and knew what it was like to stand on supermarket checkout lines."

Chris Yates in the National Journal weighs in on Gingrich's Freddie Mac connection in a piece called "Latest Freddie Mac Contract Describes Gingrich as a Hired Gun": "A contract released by Gingrich's former consulting firm shows that while he may not have been a lobbyist by Washington's definition, he was getting paid to be a political and policy heavy on the mortgage giant's behalf. The contract paid The Gingrich Group $25,000 a month and ran between May 1999 and December 2000. And Gingrich answered to Freddie Mac's senior vice president of government relations Mitchell Delk, himself a registered lobbyist. "

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

In the First Lady's box - a CPCC student

Former Central Piedmont Community College student Jackie Bray will join about two dozen guests - and a long line of citizens throughout the years - in the First Lady's box at tonight's State of the Union address.

Presidents for the last 30 years have invited to the First Lady's box everyday Americans who exemplify themes in the State of the Union speech. It's one of the perks of being an incumbent - the invitations gets some press from lots of local papers, and the president gets to indirectly bask in successes he may or may not have much to do with.

Bray, who now works at the Siemens Charlotte Energy Hub, will presumably help President Barack Obama illustrate how innovative partnerships between education and corporate America can help create and fill jobs. CPCC, under President Tony Zeiss, has put an emphasis in recent years on training students to fill technical jobs. That focus has resulted in a health services center to serve the growing health industry and a partnership with Duke Energy to train workers in that burgeoning industry.

Bray is the product of one of those partnerships. According to the White House, she was laid off from her job as a high speed packaging mechanic last January. She enrolled in Central Piedmont Community College to prepare for Siemens pre-hiring test, took about 10 courses to prepare for work there, then was hired by Siemens last August. Bray, a single mother from Kings Mountain, now works as a process operator.

For CPCC, it's a well-deserved nod. The school is developing programs and partnerships critical to helping Charlotte provide the workforce it needs to attract a diversity of businesses. Charlotte's leaders have touted CPCC's programs and others like it. Tonight, the nation gets to hear about it, too.

Peter St. Onge

Mitt's tax returns: Why they've mattered

So now we know how much Mitt Romney makes. It' s $42.6 million over the past two years, according to the fluttering of tax returns and estimates he released early this morning. A few clicks of the calculator tell us that's a little more than $80,000 each workday, or $10,000 an hour. Those kind of numbers would make some of the 1 percent envious.

But if you haven't previously had a problem with Romney's business successes - and we don't - then the returns won't introduce anything newly troubling. If you're uncomfortable with the size of his portfolio, then today's numbers will affirm that uneasiness.

There's nothing in the release, however, that hasn't already been explored in this campaign.

The returns show he tithes faithfully to his church, but we're past his Mormonism being a factor in the campaign, if it ever was.

The returns show he makes money from a continued affiliation with Bain Capital, the company he co-founded. But Americans have settled for now that Bain's brand of wealth building is a sometimes ugly but acceptable form of capitalism.

The returns also show that his effective tax rate is just under 14 percent, lower than many middle-class Americans. He confronted that discrepancy, finally, in Monday's debate in Tampa, saying that he'd like to overhaul the tax code so that more Americans are able to pay the rates he does.

All of which means the tax returns should do Romney little damage today - but that's mostly because he already allowed the discussions they prompt to get away from him. Instead of initially framing his time at Bain as free enterprise at work, he let it first be a debate over the jobs the company lost and gained. Instead of using his tax rate and returns to show how unwieldy and incomprehensible the tax code has become, he stammered at debates over what he'd reveal.

With each misstep, it's become more difficult to convince voters not to be uncomfortable with his wealth, because he clearly seems to be. Perhaps that stems from Romney's uneasiness with making personal details public, as his campaign has suggested. Perhaps it's more a product of the country's new bout of self-examination over income inequality.

Many Republicans will dismiss the latter as a liberal phenomenon, but the South Carolina primary showed again that might not be true. In Newt Gingrich, South Carolinians chose someone every bit as inconsistent as Romney on policy, but with far more personal and ethical baggage. It was a replay of sorts of most every primary Romney has entered. Republicans simply haven't connected to him - for lots of reasons, maybe, but one of them is this: While most Americans embrace capitalism, we can be a little uneasy with someone who's very, very good at it. And Mitt Romney, at least publicly, seems to be blushing, too.

Peter St. Onge

The Tampa debate: Winners and losers

Mitt Romney attacked, Newt Gingrich bit his tongue, and not much changed in the Republican race for president in Monday night's GOP debate in Tampa.

Good morning and welcome to O-pinion, the Observer's spot for perspective and discussion. I'm Peter St. Onge, associate editor of the O's editorial pages, and I'll be your host today.

Last night's four-man debate was a more somber gathering, thanks to NBC asking the audience not to applaud after answers. The result was an event that didn't have the prizefight atmosphere of the South Carolina debates, but it resulted in some sharper, more thoughtful answers.

There was no clear winner, as each candidate accomplished what he'd set out to do. Romney got in his licks, doing what he'd previously relied on surrogates and superPACs to do - employ the Iowa strategy of reminding voters of Gingrich's troubling past. He didn't get much reaction out of Gingrich, but that wasn't the point. Romney will rarely win that kind of head-to-head exchange. All he needed was to plant seeds of discomfort, and he did.

Gingrich tried a more statesmanlike approach, resisting the temptation (barely) to go after debate questioners instead of answering their questions. There also were no Saul Alinsky references, no pining for three-hour Lincoln-Douglas debates with Obama. He was the right mix of wonk and thoughtful and, as a result, more presidential than in any other debate.

Rick Santorum, as he did in South Carolina, offered the clearest contrasts between himself and the other candidates. He was a bit shrill about the threats of Iran and Cuba, but he continued to position himself as the conservative alternative to a potential Newt implosion. Ron Paul fed off the insightful questioning of moderator Brian Williams and had perhaps his best debate, avoiding the rambling answers that force viewers to sift too much for meaning.

The winner, by a perfectly combed hair: Romney.

What did the pundits think?

Time.com's Mark Halperin also gives Romney the debate win, although no one particularly stood out in his grading. Romney ("dominated most of the night") got a B. Gingrich ("low-key, confident delivery") got a B-. Santorum ("solid isn't enough anymore") got a C. Paul ("his heart seemed less into the competition") got a C-.

The Washington Post's E.J. Dionne says Romney helped himself by showing he's no wimp, but he's undecided on the new, calmer Newt.

The conservative Weekly Standard's Stephen Hayes says Romney clearly had the better moments.

His colleague, William Kristol, has a different debate winner: Mitch Daniels.

Says Kristol:

The only spectacle in American politics more off-putting than Newt Gingrich in self-righteous defense mode is Mitt Romney in self-righteous attack mode. I thought Mitt’s attacks were somewhat more dishonest than Newt’s defenses were disingenuous, but it was good to move on to the rest of the debate, where little further damage was done.

My conclusion: If Mitch Daniels’s effective tax rate is 30 percent rather than 15 percent, and if he was never paid $1.6 million by Freddie Mac, he can be the next president.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Gingrich grabs Fla. lead but some Republicans want... Mitch Daniels?

The GOP presidential ground has shifted, according to two Florida polls released today: The latest Rasmussen Reports poll, a telephone survey of likely Florida Republican primary voters taken Sunday evening found Newt Gingrich the new front-runner with 41 percent of the vote compared to Mitt Romney's 32 percent. Less than two weeks ago, Romney had a 22-point lead in Florida. Gingrich's S.C. win Saturday changed that.

In the poll, former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum runs third with 11 percent, while Texas Congressman Ron Paul has eight percent. Nine percent remain undecided.

Romney still has this going for him: Florida allows early voting, and Romney leads among those voters by 11 points. Gingrich leads by 12 among those who have not yet voted. Fourteen percent have already cast their vote.

One-in-three (32 percent) say they still could change their minds before they vote in the January 31 primary. Fifty-nine percent are already certain of their vote, including 73 percent of Romney supporters and 62 percent of Gingrich voters.

The survey results giving Gingrich the lead are consistent with the trend displayed the InsiderAdvantage/Majority Opinion Research poll of Florida Republican voters, which was released earlier today. In the InsiderAdvantage poll, Gingrich gets support from 34.4 percent of Republican voters and Romney gets 25.6 percent.

The Weekly Standard blog said the poll could either be an outlier or the beginning of a big shift in the Sunshine State. The RealClear Politics average for Florida, with this InsiderAdvantage one included, has Romney at 36.7 percent, Gingrich at 26.0 percent, Santorum 13.7 percent, and Paul with 10.7 percent.

Democratic-leaning polling Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling, PPP, announced on Twitter Sunday night that it was currently polling Florida. "First night of our Florida polling: Romney and Gingrich are neck and neck," PPP announced. A few minutes later, came this one: "2 more people picked Mitt than Newt out of about 600 people we polled tonight...that's how close we're talking."

A still dominant player in the GOP race is this: "None of the above" is the answer some Republican voters are giving to the field of candidates as the four remaining declared suitors start mixing it up in Florida. That prompted William Kristol of the conservative Weekly Standard to recycle parts of a piece he wrote two months ago.

He noted Sunday that two months ago, he wrote an editorial headlined "Evitable" with the subhead: "It might not be Mitt. It could be Newt. It could be someone else."

He said the editorial concluded: “Or, if Iowa (January 3), New Hampshire (January 10) and South Carolina (January 21) produce fragmented results, and the state of the race is disheartening to Republicans, a late January entry [I'd now say an early February entry] by another candidate isn't out of the question, either..."

In the Sunday piece, Kristol then pointed a website runmitchrun.com for a possible late entry candidate: GOP Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. The site says, "RunMitchRun.com is not connected to any candidate or campaign, current or prospective. The purpose of this petition, which was created by a single voter in Virginia, is to demonstrate to Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels that the number of Americans who would prefer him to the current field of candidates is more than sufficient to justify the effort." The site also says that as of Jan. 21, "2,504 Americans have signed" the petition.

OK. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie endorsed Romney and is now is attack dog against Gingrich (he called him “an embarrassment to the party,” citing his ethics violation and the fact that he was thrown out as speaker of the House by his own party on "Meet the Press" Sunday. But there's a draft Mitch Daniels site but not one for Chris Christie - really?

One bit of good news for Romney today. He got the endorsement of the Pensacola News Journal - if that means anything. John McCain got the paper's nod in 2008. It's northwest Florida’s most widely-read paper.

Posted by Associate Editor Fannie Flono

Newt as Lazarus? Romney as Dukakis?

Good morning. Welcome to O-Pinion, the Observer editorial board's online center for commentary, discussion and debate. I'm associate editor Fannie Flono and I'll be your host for today.

The political buzz is still about how South Carolina scrambled the Republican presidential race, giving former House Speaker Newt Gingrich his first win. And now for the first time "since the modern primary system began," notes USA Today, "the GOP has a trio of victors from the early contests: Rick Santorum in Iowa, Mitt Romney in New Hampshire and Gingrich in South Carolina."

So many are looking to Florida, the next primary state, to be the tie-breaker. It still looks like the nomination is former Massachusetts Gov. Romney's to lose. He's still most well-financed candidate and the one many people believe has the broadest appeal to be able to beat President Obama but given his debate performance lately, his tone-deafness on some issues such as his tax returns and his middling poll numbers, he could fritter away his advantage.

Speaking of his tax returns, how difficult could it have been for Romney to say quickly and decisively what most people wanted to hear during the S.C. debate? That he would release his tax returns, as many other candidates have done or said they would do. Now that his reluctance has ratcheted up the calls, and seeing how it affected him in the S.C. primary - some voters said it moved them to vote for Gingrich - he said Sunday on Fox News he would release last year's and his estimate for this year (that's far less than the multi-years people expected but it's a start).

Yesterday was the 39th anniversary of the still controversial Roe v. Wade decision allowing the right to an abortion. The issue hasn't dominated Republican politics during this campaign season as it has in the past. But it has come up, most explicitly when Rick Santorum has challenged the other candidates on their conservative bonafides on the issue during the recent S.C. debates. If you missed it, there was a particularly sharp exchange between Santorum and Ron Paul in last Thursday's debate.

Santorum said Paul had voted for "right to life" legislation only 50 percent of the time. Paul responded that he and Santorum “have a disagreement on how we approach” the issue of abortion. Paul explained that in his understanding of the Constitution, oversight of “almost all the problems” now encumbering the federal government is left to the individual states, including the issue of abortion. “I see abortion as a violent act,” Paul said with some passion, but explained that “all other violence is handled by the states — murder, burglary — those are state issues. Don’t try to say that I am less pro-life because I want to be particular about the way we [protect the unborn] and allow the states the prerogative....”

In the New American, writer Dave Bohon said "in challenging Paul on his pro-life record, Santorum was capitalizing on the trend in recent months to paint Congressman Paul as the least pro-life of all the Republican presidential candidates."

On Sunday, the Huffington Post reported President Obama affirmed his support of Roe on his blog: "We must remember that this Supreme Court decision not only protects a woman’s health and reproductive freedom, but also affirms a broader principle: that government should not intrude on private family matters. I remain committed to protecting a woman’s right to choose and this fundamental constitutional right."

The issue could likely loom large in the presidential race once the Republican nominee is chosen.

So, who will that nominee be? Florida may help untangle the puzzle. But there were was plenty of punditry over the weekend on why Gingrich came out on top in South Carolina.

George Will had this view on "This Week with Christiane Amanpour" saying more about Mitt Romney than Newt Gingrich, calling Romney the Republican's Michael Dukakis.

Charles Krauthammer told Fox News Gingrich was like Lazarus: “But you know, you got Lazarus, except Lazarus only had to rise once. Gingrich has now risen twice, which makes you think there’s something going on here.” He said the Florida Primary is now up for grabs.

Asher Smith has this view in the Huffington Post: "Did Economic Populism Win South Carolina for Newt Gingrich."

Paul Hogarth has this take in San Francisco's alternative paper, Beyond Chron: "Why Progressives should be thrilled Newt won South Carolina."

J.D. Longstreet gives his opinion in "Was South Carolina a fluke?" in Right Side News.

Friday, January 20, 2012

S.C. debate No. 2: Winners and losers

With one searing attack on media and CNN moderator John King, Newt Gingrich brought a raucous South Carolina crowd to its feet Thursday night and mitigated at least some of the damage from allegations that he once asked his second wife to participate in an open marriage.

Gingrich also denied those charges, and that two-part response will be the moment people remember from the South Carolina primary - and perhaps his campaign. For that, Gingrich was an obvious winner of Thursday night's debate in Charleston.

Rick Santorum might have actually had the better debate, but it's hard to win on points after someone else gets the first-round knockout. Santorum made clear policy contrasts between himself and his opponents all the way through his closing statement, and his plainspoken fret about Newt Gingrich's instability was something that surely had heads nodding across the state and country. A solid second place.

Mitt Romney had what might have been the worst of his debates. He inexplicably stumbled again when asked about releasing his tax returns, and he ineffectively tried to deflect questions about himself with criticism of President Barack Obama. Romney's best moment: Countering Gingrich's perpetual Ronald Reagan references by noting that in Reagan's diary, Gingrich was mentioned once - and it was unflattering.

Ron Paul was too often a bystander, in part because moderator King seemed to forget he was there (at one point the crowd had to verbally nudge King to include Paul in a question.) Paul escaped without having to talk about foreign policy, but he did little to make himself a factor Thursday or with Saturday's vote.

Gingrich, after that first moment, was at times subdued (for him), almost as if he worried about following up the opening blast with more passion. But he artfully let Romney trip over himself on taxes, and he finished with a strong closing argument about his leadership. It was a thoughtful bookend to that first, white-hot moment.

*The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza says Santorum and Gingrich were the debate winners. Santorum "took the fight" to Romney and Gingrich, says Cillizza, and by doing so lumped the pair together as "ineffective change agents in voters' minds."

Romney gets a split decision from Cillizza, who thought the former governor found a good message by not apologizing for his wealth, but "fumbled around" releasing his tax returns. Ron Paul was the biggest loser of the four, says Cillizza, but partly because he was excluded too often.

*Time.com's political expert Mark Halperin gives out his highest debate grade with an A+ to Gingrich, not only for the emotional surge at the top of the debate, but because he was "confident and engaged" all night.

Romney gets a B for being "self-possessed and upbeat" but not doing anything in the debate to slow Gingrich's momentum. Santorum gets a B for being steady, even and ultimately powerful. Paul gets a C-.

*Stephen Hayes of the conservative Weekly Standard also gives the nod to Gingrich, in part for what we thought might have been his better sound bite, on why he can effectively debate President Barack Obama on health care: “I can say: I was wrong and figured it out. You were wrong and you didn’t.”

Hayes, like the others, thought Santorum was forceful, although at times too much so. Romney, he thought, was off-balance in answering questions about his taxes.

*Wondering about those pesky facts? The Washington Post's solid Fact Checker goes over 15 debate claims. (Hint: No one emerges Pinocchio-free.)

Peter St. Onge

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Romney, Gingrich send us their final appeals to S.C. voters

The Observer's editorial board invited the Republican candidates for president to write pieces making their cases to S.C. voters before Saturday's primary. Front-runners Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich did.

Romney says he would undo what President Obama is creating: An entitlement society where Americans are dependent on government. Read Romney's op-ed here.

Gingrich says Ronald Reagan produced a good model for getting out of a recession, and spells out five things he would do as president. Read his piece here.

Reagan knew how to fix the economy, and so do I

By Newt Gingrich
Special to the Observer

The recession “officially” came to an end two and a half years ago. President Obama and his Washington establishment tell us the economy has been moving in the right direction since June 2009.

But when I talk to families in South Carolina and across the country, few share the elite sentiment that everything is going just fine.

Dynamic recovery is possible. It has happened in many of our lifetimes. Remember that Ronald Reagan also inherited a blistering recession when he took office in 1981. But unlike the current administration, President Reagan had a clear plan, and he followed through: tax reform, a sound dollar, expanded American energy production, smarter regulations and faith in job creators.

If we restore these jobs and growth policies, within a year the American economy will take off on another historic boom.

When that recession officially ended in November 1982, almost 12 percent of South Carolinians were unemployed. But over the next two and a half years, the Reagan recovery roared in the Palmetto State – beginning the longest prolonged period of growth in American history.

While Reagan put his faith in American job-creators, President Obama has demonized them and looked to government for solutions: a wasteful trillion-dollar stimulus, a trillion-plus-dollar Washington takeover of the health-care system, a weakening dollar and an activist NLRB that tried to kill jobs in South Carolina.

America is suffering this nightmare because President Obama has pursued exactly the opposite of every jobs and growth policy undertaken by President Reagan.

First, we must lower the corporate income tax rate, among the highest in the industrialized world, to 12.5 percent. We must eliminate the immoral and wasteful death tax, and zero out the capital gains tax, which now acts as a double tax on families and businesses.

We must allow immediate expensing (writing off the costs in one year) for investment in capital equipment so American workers can continue to be the most productive in the world using the latest and most advanced technology.

I propose an optional 15 percent flat tax, allowing those American taxpayers who prefer it to file on a postcard, saving close to half a trillion dollars in tax compliance costs each year.

These tax reforms are designed to maximize job creation, wages and economic growth. The massive growth in jobs and productive work, coupled with spending cuts, will be the key to balancing the budget.

Second, we must reestablish a stable dollar so that the purchasing power of a dollar is the same 30-40 years from today. Unstable money is a great threat to our return to prosperity. Part of our approach on the dollar will be to reestablish something Ronald Reagan did in 1981 and that is to have a Commission on Gold to look at the whole concept of how do we get back to hard money, which is a necessary component of stable growth.

Third, we must end the costly regulatory assault on American businesses and consumers, starting with the repeal of Obamacare with its job killing individual and employer mandates. We must also scale down the powers of many job-killing Washington-centric bureaucracies, such as the NLRB, and return decision-making powers to states and communities.

Fourth, we must tackle entitlement reform. We can strengthen Medicare and Social Security by offering the choice to expand personal savings, investment and insurance accounts until they ultimately finance all the benefits now financed by the payroll tax, eventually displacing that tax entirely. And we can save trillions by applying the highly successful 1996 welfare reforms to the 200 other federal means-tested programs, block granting them back to the states.

Finally, we must have an American Energy Plan that will free the energy industry to maximize production of all forms of American energy, including off the coast of South Carolina, assuring the reliable supply of low-cost gasoline, diesel, natural gas, coal and other energy sources essential to fueling a booming economy.

Getting Americans back to work and restoring our economic strength is only the start of the great and uplifting task of renewing America. Together we can make her once again the great and hopeful nation she has always been, a beacon to the world. And yes – from Pilgrim Father John Winthrop to President Ronald Reagan – that shining city on the hill.

If you give me the chance, together we will bring America back stronger and more hopeful than ever. We will rebuild the America we love.

I can undo the economic damage Obama has inflicted

By Mitt Romney
Special to the Observer

“Hope” and “change” were the watchwords we heard repeatedly from Barack Obama back when he was a presidential candidate campaigning here in the Carolinas. Three years into his presidency, he hasn’t delivered much in the way of hope. But we’ve seen a lot of change.

The change has come in the size and shape and reach of Washington. Obama promised to fix our broken system. Instead, he has grown it massively.

We have thousands of new regulations, many of them job-killers. We have hundreds of billions in new federal spending. The government workforce has grown by tens of thousands of new workers. The national debt now totals a stratospheric $15 trillion. We have a brand new and enormously expensive entitlement program known as Obamacare.

With government swelling at a rapid pace, the private sector, unsurprisingly, has stagnated. Nearly 24 million Americans are out of work, struggling to find full-time work, or no longer even looking. In North Carolina, unemployment is an appalling 10 percent. In South Carolina it’s 9.9 percent. As I’ve traveled the South and traveled the country, I’ve heard story after story of heartbreak, of homes lost, of retirement plans replaced by jobs at minimum wage, of dreams shattered.

If we are going to undo the damage, this year’s election is critical. The destiny of our country is at stake. We can choose to live in the Entitlement Society that Barack Obama has been constructing, a society built around dependence on government. Or we can return to the merit-based Opportunity Society built by our Founding Fathers.

The drafters of the Declaration of Independence wrote that the Creator endowed us with unalienable rights, among them, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In America, we would be free to plot our own course. Ours would be the land of opportunity, where people achieve their dreams through hard work, education and daring.

Nearly two-and-a-half centuries of American history demonstrate the brilliance of our founding principles. America has produced pioneers and inventors of distinction in every field. We have excelled in science and industry. We have built an Opportunity Society that is prosperous and free and strong.

Barack Obama has taken us on a detour away from our founding philosophy. He has mismanaged our economy, weakened our military, and apologized for America around the world. In October, I spoke at The Citadel, where patriotism is a passion. The spirit of sacrifice I found there, the love of our country and everything we stand for, only reinforces my belief that we need change in Washington, D.C., and change in the White House. I want America to be respected around the world. I want to return America to the path of greatness and I know how to bring us where we need to go.

I’ve spent most of my life in the private sector. I’m not a career politician. I know how misguided government policies can choke off investment and kill jobs. I also know how government can get out of the way to foster economic growth.

My administration will make America the best place in the world for entrepreneurs, inventors and job creators. I’ll lower and simplify taxes, especially for middle-income Americans. I will repeal every unnecessary Obama-era regulation that kills jobs or hurts economic growth. I will fight the union bosses who build their power at the expense of the very workers they purport to represent.

I’ll open up new markets for American goods. I’ll press to exploit fully our abundant energy resources. I will cut and cap spending, and lead us toward a balanced budget. And I will repeal Obamacare. On my first day as president, I will direct the Secretary of Health and Human Services to grant waivers from Obamacare to all 50 states.

Let’s not be under any illusions that change of the sort I am proposing will be easy. Obama, the Democratic machine, and the entrenched interests behind them are going to fight to retain their power and their privileges at every step of the way. We need to fight back. Fortunately, we have a simple tool at hand: It’s called the truth. And the truth is that President Obama has failed, and his vision for America is wrong. Reversing that failure, and correcting our course, is what the election of 2012 is all about.

How Gingrich's bitter ex-wife could shape tonight's debate

Updated with new poll results at 4:35 p.m.

The Republicans hold their last debate before the S.C. primary tonight, and breaking news this morning will directly shape it.

First up: There will be only four candidates on the stage in North Charleston. Texas Gov. Rick Perry dropped out of the race this morning and endorsed fellow anti-Romney candidate Newt Gingrich.

The big question, though, surrounds whether Gingrich will have to field questions about a new interview his ex-wife, Marianne, is doing with ABC News on Nightline tonight. She’s expected to say some nasty things about the man who admitted to cheating on her. But there are mixed signals coming out of the Gingrich campaign on how he’ll handle it. Some say he’ll fight back. Others say he’ll ignore it.

“It is pretty nasty to use personal tragedy for political exploitation,” senior Gingrich adviser Bob Walker tells the National Review. “That was a very bitter divorce, and you’re talking about somebody who is still, probably, very bitter.”

It will be interesting to see how Gingrich, needing to win a socially conservative state, handles it if questions about his infidelity come up. He said today he won't talk about Marianne. His two daughters, in a letter to ABC news, are defending him.

As for the Perry endorsement, we think it will give Gingrich a bounce. Perry was winning only 6 percent of the vote in Public Policy Polling’s most recent S.C. poll. But his impact could be greater than that because he’s dropping out so close to the primary and creating buzz. Gingrich was rising in the S.C. polls after Monday's debate anyway, so this will add to the momentum. A new Rasmussen poll has Gingrich trailing Romney only 30-27. But the Christian Science Monitor says that it’s not clear what’s going on with polls in the Palmetto State.

Update: Nate Silver of the New York Times summarizes six different S.C. polls that have all come out today. Three of those have Gingrich ahead slightly; two have Romney up by 7 and 10 points; and one has it as a virtual tie. Looking at the different polling methodology and other factors, Silver concludes there is "substantial momentum for Mr. Gingrich in South Carolina, giving him at least as strong a tailwind as Rick Santorum had in the closing days of the campaign in Iowa." Silver's model says South Carolina is now a toss-up.

One big question will be whether Marinanne's last-minute interview with ABC will slow Gingrich down.

CNN’s John King will moderate tonight’s debate. He tells the Boston Globe that “South Carolina gets their chest puffed out” for this primary.

South Carolina, and the Republican nomination, is still Romney’s to lose, despite Gingrich’s late surge. Pressure continues to build on Romney to release his tax returns, and you can be sure it will be an issue against Obama, especially if Romney doesn’t clear the air quickly. We at the Observer are less concerned about seeing his papers, we said in this morning’s paper, than we are about closing the “carried-interest” loophole that lets hedge fund managers and private equity executives have their fees taxed at 15 percent.

Taylor Batten

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

An unfair loophole for America’s richest

Tomorrow's editorial today:

Mitt Romney is a rich man. He has made millions from investments and business ventures, most notably the private equity firm he co-founded, Bain Capital. He has made so much, in fact, that in South Carolina this week, he described the $374,327 he was paid in speaking fees last year as “not very much.”

Good for him. Romney shouldn’t feel shame – nor should voters reflexively be wary – at the heft of his financial portfolio. But on Tuesday, the Republican candidate for president also revealed that his effective tax rate is well below what many Americans pay – “probably closer to the 15 percent rate than anything,” he said. It’s an admission that’ll intensify calls for Romney to release his income tax returns, but we don’t need his paperwork to understand how some of the wealthiest Americans have found even more riches thanks to changes in federal tax policy.

Romney acknowledged this week that most of his income comes from investments, which are taxed at a rate significantly less than the top rate of 35 percent for individual wages. That’s a product of decades of capital gains tax cuts, beginning with President Bill Clinton, who lowered that tax rate from 28 to 20 percent, followed by George W. Bush lowering it to 15 percent.

Many economists and most Republicans argue that capital gains tax cuts help rev the economy by putting more income in the pockets of people who make investments and create jobs. That’s logical but disputed. Last year, a report from the non-partisan Congressional Research Service said that reducing capital gains tax rates does little to stimulate economic growth – and ultimately is a drag on federal revenues.

Romney, however, also has benefited from an objectionable tax break – one designed to benefit hedge-fund and private equity managers. Those managers deduct a percentage – typically 20 percent – of the profits their investors make, but instead of declaring it as a fee, the managers call it investment income – or “carried interest.” That income can be taxed as a long-term capital gain at the 15 percent rate.

A New York Times report last month revealed that although Romney left Bain Capital in 1999, he still receives a share of the firm’s “carried interest” profits – taxed at the same low rate. It’s completely legal, and there’s no indication that Romney has inappropriately dodged any taxes.

But while there’s at least an arguable premise that capital gains tax cuts reward and encourage risk-taking, the carried interest loophole gives the same benefit to hedge fund and private equity managers simply for making profits off of others’ investment risks. It’s a gift for the extremely wealthy, so they can become wealthier.

President Barack Obama has proposed taxing “carried interest” at ordinary income tax rates when the Bush-era tax cuts expire in 2013, and even House majority leader Eric Cantor has entertained the possibility of scrapping the egregious loophole. While many Americans might not understand the intricacies behind “carried interest,” they know what 15 percent is – a lower tax rate than someone who makes $75,000 pays. It’s unfair. It costs the country revenue. And it’s yet another example of how America is in need of serious tax reform.

Is there magic in N.C. schools superindent title?

N.C. schools' superintendent June Atkinson has proved she's a scrapper. But she might have to scrap mightily to return as superintendent for four more years now that she has belatedly decided to seek the job again. Word was out that she wasn't going to run again after two terms but today she threw her hat back in the ring.

She caught two Democratic colleagues off-guard when she changed her mind. Both Mecklenburg's own Tricia Cotham, a state House member, and Rick Glazier, a House member from Cumberland County, had said they planned to run. Glazier said he still will. But I talked to Tricia Cotham today and she said: "I'm keeping my word." That word was her promise not to run if Atkinson decided she would.

Cotham had said a few months ago that she thought the superintendent's job was a good "bully pulpit" to talk about and fight for education issues. We said then that she had great credentials for the job, having been a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools former teacher and assistant principal. The youngest female to ever hold public office in North Carolina, she is vice-chair of the education committee and has co-sponsored or sponsored several pieces of legislation on education and children's welfare over the years.

Atkinson seemed unlikely to run. She hasn't raised any money and hasn't really been around touting a campaign. Her fellow Democrats have been disaffected with her performance. It was reported that Progress North Carolina, a liberal advocacy group, was ticked off at Atkinson about her silence on Republican-driven education budget cuts the past year. When Atkinson appeared before a legislative committee, Progress NC sent a statement critical of her. "As state superintendent, it’s her job to be the state’s biggest advocate for public schools," said Gerrick Brenner, the group's executive director. "Right now, June Atkinson is failing teachers and students, by not standing up to lawmakers who continue to hide behind false rhetoric after they slashed school budgets."

Atkinson apparently loves a fight though. She hung in through seven months of litigation when she was first elected in 2004. A Republican challenger contested the close election results. She also fought back in court when Gov. Bev Perdue tried to usurp her position by elevating school board chairman Bill Harrison to CEO of North Carolina's school and relegating her elected superintendent job to a largely ceremonial role. Atkinson sued on constitutional grounds, arguing that Perdue did not have the authority to put Harrison in charge of schools. She won that case, but Harrison remained as chairman of the state school board.

Rumor has it that there is no love lost between Atkinson and Perdue. And with some Dems not too pleased with her work performance, Atkinson might find it a battle royal to get reelected this time. At least three Republicans also have said they want the job.

All the interest in the job is surprising, given that the position, at least under Atkinson, has had a low profile and not very much clout. Most education policy is done by legislators and the governor who has control over millions in federal dollars through Race to the Top and other grants. And Harrison as chair of the Governor’s Education Transformation Commission still manages to rival the state education superintendent in power despite the court ruling.

Is there some magic in the title? This election season promises to be a lively one in many ways.

- Posted by Fannie Flono

Perdue pushing N.C. tax amnesty? Kinda

Good morning. Welcome to O-Pinion, the Observer editorial board's blog of commentary and public discussion. I'm associate editor Fannie Flono, your host today.

Before we get to "tax amnesty," let's talk about the big political news in the Carolinas: the upcoming South Carolina GOP primary where the remaining Republican candidates are still battling it out.

An article in the conservative Weekly Standard has an intriguing take on why "A Gingrich Win Could Benefit Everyone - including Romney. In it Jeffrey H. Anderson contends that if Newt Gingrich wins, it will provide an opportunity for more substantive debate from the Republicans so the party can get its true message out on issues. "Romney should actually welcome additional chances to hone his skills," Anderson said. "After all, if he isn’t confident that he can beat Newt Gingrich without a Mike Tyson-style early round knockout — secured mostly through a huge advantage in cash and a resulting barrage of negative advertising in Iowa — then what chance does he really have of beating Obama?" All right. Let's keep those gloves on.

The Standard also had an interesting story dissecting new polls showing President Barack Obama's approval ratings ticking up. In a blog piece called "Morning Jay: What to Make of Obama's Approval Bounce?" Jay Costa attributes the change to "marginal Democrats" coming back to the Obama fold.

On the liberal side, the Huffington Post takes on Gingrich for continuing at Monday's S.C. debate in Myrtle Beach "to promote his controversial strategy to fight both child poverty and the jobs crisis." That plan being to hire poor children to be janitors in schools. Lila Shapiro writes that "the idea captures Gingrich's spin on two popular right-wing economic claims: Union workers are overpaid and the poor simply need to work harder to improve their lives." She then debunks his contention, saying he got facts wrong. She says he incorrectly said that an entry-level janitor gets paid twice as much as an entry-level teacher. Not only do Gingrich's calculations assume janitors earn much more than they actually do, his theory is deeply flawed, and would likely harm impoverished communities, not help them, she said researchers say.

Here in North Carolina, the battle is at the state level with Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue taking on Republicans by publicly arguing that they should restore part of state sales tax the Republican-controlled legislature let expire last year. Republican Senate leader Phil Berger said predictably that the proposal was "dead on arrival in the General Assembly."
But we wonder what Repubs think about this: Perdue announced today that the North Carolina Department of Revenue is launching the Individual Income Tax Debt Payment Program to help individuals catch up on unpaid taxes.

According to a press release, "This time-limited program will help individuals resolve unpaid taxes and get back on their feet financially by waiving certain penalties and fees and offering payment plan options. Participating taxpayers can avoid forced collections such as garnishments, liens, and levies.

This sounds like somewhat like a back-door tax amnesty program. We said last May that N.C. lawmakers and the governor should both agree to a tax amnesty plan to bring in money to state coffers. At the time, GOP Rep. Tim Moffitt of Buncombe County was sponsoring a bill. Moffitt said then his bill could bring in as much as $200 million during a grace period between July 1 and June 30, 2012. The bill would have allowed taxpayers in arrears to settle their accounts by paying all of their taxes plus half the interest. The state, in turn, would drop penalties and criminal charges.

The bill got nowhere but Moffitt said it was a good one because North Carolina shouldn't impose penalties on tax delinquents at a time when many people can't find a job."There is no reason for the state to rub salt into people's wounds, " he said.
In announcing her plan today, Perdue said: "This is exactly the type of program we need to help our fellow North Carolinians down the path to economic recovery. We are making it easier for our citizens to work with state government.”

Are Republicans and Democrats, gasp, on the same page?