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The Senate primary and the Democratic doldrums 

It's the last week of the June 22 primary runoffs, and the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate looks more worthless by the day. Surely by now Democrats realize that even if they plan to vote for Cal Cunningham, he should not have called for a runoff after finishing second in May. Surely they also realize that even if they plan to vote for Elaine Marshall, and even if they detest Cunningham for insisting on a runoff, once he did insist, Marshall should've debated him every day and every night from May to next week.

Cunningham's decision means the Democrats still don't have an agreed-upon candidate to run against Republican Sen. Richard Burr in November. It also assures that the Democrat who prevails next week will be scuffed up, thanks to his/ her opponent, and flat broke against an incumbent who has already raised $10 million.

In a sense, however, Marshall's decision was worse. The fact is, runoff or no, the Democratic nominee was fated to be up against Burr's mountain of money. The only way to overcome it was—and is—with a sharp attack on Burr's Achilles' heel: the fact that he is, and I don't mean to be harsh, a Republican.

As their first debate last Thursday demonstrated, however, neither Marshall nor Cunningham is ready with that sharp attack. Part of the reason is that they're too busy picking at each other—and over pretty much nothin'—trying to win the nomination. But it goes deeper than that, I think. The problem is, Marshall has the instincts she'll need against Burr but not the discipline or mastery of the issues. Cunningham's all discipline—he's studied the issues every which way—but he lacks conviction.

Put their best halves together, and the one who wins the nomination might have game. But instead of practicing against each other in the preseason and letting the best nominee win (as Marshall arguably did win six weeks ago), they've been crying to the ref about who took lobbyists' money—they both did—or who said that Social Security might someday need to be changed a little.

How else to explain why, when the first question from WRAL's David Crabtree was about offshore drilling, neither Marshall nor Cunningham went on the attack against the Republicans' only energy policy, which is "drill, baby, drill"? Marshall managed just a passing allusion to the Bush administration crafting energy policy behind closed doors as she decried the "goo-covered birds" and said she opposes offshore drilling in North Carolina. Cunningham, given two follow-ups, finally mentioned that the federal government should "look over the horizon" to a different energy future, not based on oil. Asked a third follow-up about nuclear power, Cunningham said he's for it, but it's not safe. Or, to be precise, "I have safety concerns," he said.

If either Cunningham or Marshall intends to go to Washington and champion—meaning, fight for, be passionate about and know enough of the details to make their mark on—an energy transformation for this country, you wouldn't know it from their answers.

And if their passion is, rather, the economy and jobs—the next question—they should take the best of each other's answers and discard their own chaff. Cunningham went immediately into the weeds with wonky policy talk. Marshall, to her credit, said the jobless need help right now, not new laws next year. But her description of what's wrong with the U.S. economy was oblique, and when Crabtree asked why Democrats haven't been able to fix things, she whiffed on the answer, which is—if you're the Democratic candidate—that Republicans like Burr are responsible for the deep hole we're in and are obstructing all efforts to fill it.

Points for Cunningham when, in his turn, he called out "this Republican recession." But Cunningham was so determined to present himself as "bipartisan" and seeking "solutions that aren't Democratic or Republican solutions but practical solutions," that when Crabtree said the Democrats should be on top of things by now because they have 60 votes in the Senate, Cunningham also whiffed. The Democrats don't have 60 votes. They haven't since Scott Brown took Ted Kennedy's seat in Massachusetts, and they didn't even have them before that without including the execrable Joe Lieberman. The right answer: "We don't have 60 votes, but we'd be one closer without Richard Burr, whose middle name should be filibuster—if it isn't."

And more points off for Cunningham, who, when asked if he'd represent North Carolina in the Senate or be in lockstep with President Obama and the Democratic leadership, responded, "North Carolina, and I told Obama he's not doing enough about jobs and cutting spending."

Right answer: I'd work with the Republicans if there were anything to work with. But since there isn't, I'll work with the president, who's trying to lift up the county and North Carolina against formidable odds.

Later, there was Marshall's much-noted eight-second delay in responding to Crabtree's yes-or-no question about raising the federal income tax. It was a stupid question, and her face registered how stupid she thought it was. That's lack of practice. "That's not a serious question," is the answer, with a little wink to show that you still like Crabtree, despite the bad night he was having.

The second and last Marshall-Cunningham debate was slated to take place last night after our press time. Hope it went better. Wish there'd been more. Whoever wins, practice, practice, practice. There's still time.

  • Neither Marshall nor Cunningham is ready to go up against Burr.

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