LOOK FOR THESE POINTS IN THIS STORY:
- PANTANO ALMOST BEAT McINTYRE IN 2010
- PANTANO IS A COMBAT MARINE VETERAN
- ROUZER IS A FORMER CAPITOL HILL LOBBYIST
- ROUZER HAS SUPPORTED ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION
- ROUZER DOES NOT FAVOR TERM LIMITS
- PANTANO HAS SWORN HE WILL ADHERE TO TERM LIMITS
But this year, with a redrawn 7th District designed to send a Republican to Congress, party front-runners Ilario Pantano of Wilmington and state Sen. David Rouzer of Johnston County are battling to earn the GOP nomination in a primary that has the ferocity of a November race.
Pantano, a war veteran who was the 7th District's Republican nominee two years ago, has for months been airing scathing ads attacking Rouzer's record on illegal immigration.
Rouzer, a two-term state senator and former aide to longtime U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, worked as a lobbyist supporting the AgJOBS Act of 2007, which included citizenship provisions for illegal immigrants working in the U.S.
Rouzer says the bill was nearly identical to legislation proposed by Helms in 1998, and that it offers farmers a solution to the real problem in North Carolina of finding enough legal labor to support the state's $70 billion agriculture industry. Rouzer says he doesn't support amnesty for illegal aliens, but he does support a path to citizenship for reliable workers.
"In those cases where you have an employee who has been here illegally, I'm for letting them come forward, vouch for who they are, and if everything comes up clean, let them earn a way to become legal," Rouzer said.
"They like to take that and say that I'm for all these illegal aliens. I'm for the people here working doing the jobs that no other Americans are willing to do."
Rouzer says Pantano is exaggerating the (illegal immigration) issue to score political points.
Pantano says Rouzer's work on the bill, which his television ads note was supported by Barack Obama, Ted Kennedy, Dianne Feinstein and Hillary Clinton, but no North Carolina congressmen, is "a betrayal of conservative values.
"He's on record saying he does not support amnesty, but he was paid thousands of dollars lobbying for a bill that would provide amnesty," Pantano said. "Either he's a liar or a hypocrite."
Rouzer touts his experience with Helms and in the state Senate as an advantage against Pantano, while Pantano tries to use those experiences against him.
Says Rouzer: "Do you want someone who's tried and true and been through the political fires and been trained by one of the forefathers of the tea party movement, or do you want to place your trust in one who says all the right things and has all the right buzzwords but never offers any solutions?"
Rouzer points to his accomplishments in the General Assembly, balancing the budget, cutting taxes and reducing regulations for business. That shows he's ready to make a difference in Washington, he says.
Pantano, who unlike Rouzer supports term limits, says career politicians are part of what got the country in the mess it's in today. Pantano says his life story is one of sacrificing for his country: enlisting in the Marines to fight in the Gulf War, then leaving a lucrative Wall Street job after Sept. 11, 2001, to fight in another war.Pantano also questions Rouzer's voting record as a state senator, pointing to the conservative Civitas Institute's grades for Rouzer's votes as a conservative: an A in 2011, D- in 2010 and F in 2009. But in 2010, Rouzer's grade may be misleading. The D- made him the eighth most conservative senator because only one senator managed a grade better than a C.
Also on the primary ballot is Randy Crow of Kelly, who has run unsuccessfully for office 18 other times. Crow believes the attacks on 9/11 weren't orchestrated by Osama bin Laden.
A poll last month by Citizens United showed Pantano leading Rouzer by a 2-1 margin.
But Rouzer says he has been making up ground as more voters across the district learn about him. Pantano had the initial advantage of being well-known because of his 2010 run.
Rouzer has backing from North Carolina's GOP establishment, including endorsements from Congresswoman Renee Ellmers and the top Republicans in the General Assembly.
But Pantano has his own high-level Republican support: former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld held a fundraiser for him last week in Washington, which could help shield Pantano from any attacks on his experience in Iraq. Pantano was charged with killing two unarmed Iraqi prisoners, but the charges were dropped before the case went to trial. Fox News has called Pantano a "conservative rock star."Ferrel Guillory, a political observer and lecturer in the journalism school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said the fiercely contested primary reflects the new district lines, which cut out McIntyre's home turf in Robeson County and now include conservative Johnston County. Two years ago, Democrats outnumbered Republicans 2-1 in the district. No more.
A key for unseating McIntyre, Guillory said, will be matching his spending.
McIntyre and Pantano ran the most expensive U.S. House race in the state in 2010, spending a combined $3.1 million.
Financial statements filed last week show that Pantano raised more than Rouzer in the first three months of 2012 - $128,767 to $89,460. And for the entire election season, Pantano's fundraising of $380,306 gives him a small $5,000 edge over Rouzer. But while Pantano has about $44,000 left to spend from donations, Rouzer has $145,640 leading up to the May 8 primary.
One of them will have to raise a lot more cash to catch up with McIntyre, who has raised a little more than $1 million so far this election cycle, with three-quarters of that still in his war chest for the general election.
"Because they will be the Republican nominee in a redrawn district, they will be a formidable opponent for Mike McIntyre," Guillory said. "I fully expect them to go real hard at each other for the next 20 days or so."
Staff writer John Ramsey can be reached at email@example.com or 486-3574.