RALEIGH - The two leading N.C. gubernatorial candidates traded barbs Thursday night about campaign issues including education and political mudslinging.
Republican Richard Vinroot and Democrat Mike Easley debated for the second time in the House Chamber of the Old State Capitol, while about 20 Libertarians gathered outside to protest their candidate's exclusion from the debate.
The debate, which aired live on television stations statewide, was organized by WTVD Channel 11 in Durham and Your Voice, Your Vote, a statewide media coalition created to determine which issues are most important to voters. The event was styled like a town meeting, similar to the third presidential debate on Oct. 17. Questions from the audience of about 100 people ranged from education reforms to legalizing same-sex marriages - an issue both candidates opposed.
Vinroot compared his programs to those of Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush, while equating Easley's with those of Democrat presidential candidate Al Gore. But Easley said his plans were his own - not Gore's.
It became evident during the debate that the two candidates felt strongly about their differences.
When asked how they would decrease the achievement gap between black and white students, both Easley and Vinroot grabbed at the chance to discuss their plans for education reform.
Easley emphasized his desire to reduce class sizes, especially in grades K-3. He also expressed disapproval of Vinroot's school voucher plan. "I want (people) to get their money's worth out of the public school system," he said.
But Vinroot stressed the potential of school vouchers, citing Florida's voucher system, established by Gov. Jeb Bush, as a successful example. Vinroot also reiterated his plan to test all teachers and pay them based on merit, not tenure. "The number one ingredient for good education is good teachers."
It took a question about mudslinging to bring out the candidates' claws. Vinroot accused Easley of initiating negative campaigning in July and of misleading voters. "I suggest we stick to the facts," he said.
Easley, however, denied producing any negative ads, saying he focuses on issues instead of his opponent's weaknesses.
As the candidates bickered back and forth, a group of about 20 sign-waving protesters supporting Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Barbara Howe were outside.
Howe was barred from participating in the debate due to low poll numbers. She also said she was denied a seat in the audience due to organizers' fears that she would be a distraction.
Howe expressed her frustration at her exclusion from the event. "This is an example of the media shaping the election rather than reporting it," she said. "I'm disappointed for myself as well as the voters."
But some audience members were pleased with the debate.
N.C. Central University student Kia Chapious, a political science major, said everyone should have access to the political process through debates. "I'm here because I'm interested in hearing what the candidates have to say and how they plan to improve the state."
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