Charlotte-area Republicans got their first long looks Thursday at two of the party's leading presidential contenders.
At separate events, Texas Gov. Rick Perry touted himself as a champion job creator and U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota pledged to push for repeal of President Barack Obama's health care and banking reforms.
For the most part, the GOP officeholders, activists and business leaders at the Perry and Bachmann events - both closed to the news media - liked what they saw and heard.
The Texas governor is "real. He just says what's on his mind," said former N.C. Sen. Robert Pittenger, one of about 100 people who paid between $1,000 and $2,500 to attend a Perry fundraiser at San Antonio's Modern Mexican restaurant at SouthPark mall. "I think people, deep down, really like that."
Bachmann, who spoke to an uptown gathering of 35 people at the Charlotte Chamber, "is super-smart," said Charlotte council member Andy Dulin. "She's talking the talk, and walking the walk."
But not everybody was taken with the two candidates, both of whom have had rocky times lately on the trail and in debate halls.
Perry, whose support of in-state tuition for Texas children of undocumented immigrants has drawn fire from some conservatives, was met Thursday by a small band of protesters brandishing signs that read things like "Rick Perry: Endorsed by Mexico."
At a brief, post-fundraiser news conference - cut short when two hecklers tried to drown out reporters' questions and Perry's answers - the governor defended his stands on immigration by going on the offense.
It's the federal government's failure to secure the border, he said, that is forcing states like Texas to come up with their own solutions.
"The state of Texas decided this is how we want to do this (in-state tuition) issue, although it's been brought on by a federal government that's not doing its job," said Perry, who added that North Carolina and other states were entitled to make different decisions - including deny in-state tuition to children whose parents entered the country illegally.
In her own short meeting with reporters, Bachmann was asked about by her steep decline in the polls - caused in part by her string of controversial and sometimes inaccurate comments. Most recently, for example, she suggested that vaccinating young girls against cervical cancer could cause mental retardation.
There were also national reports Thursday that Bachmann's campaign may be so low on money that she may not make it to next year's caucuses in Iowa, where she won a key straw poll in August.
In Charlotte, though, she predicted she was on the cusp of a comeback: "This is what happens in politics: You have candidates go up and you have candidates go down. ... But now we're in a very good trajectory. We're back on our way up."
But even one business leader who liked what she said during the Chamber-sponsored roundtable questioned whether she could win against Obama in a general election.
"She's spot-on with spending cuts, with wasteful government regulations. And I think repealing 'Obamacare' and Dodd-Frank (which regulates banking) would do great things for all businesses," he said. "(But) I'm not sure the country is ready for her right now. I think she tends to be polarizing. I'm not saying it's her fault. It may be more the fault of the electorate."
Could he see her as president?
"I can see her more as vice president," McNeill said.
It is also clear that N.C. Democratic leaders are less worried about Bachmann than about Perry, who is still leading several GOP polls even after bad reviews for his performances at recent debates.
The state Democratic Party invited reporters to participate in a conference call Thursday with Sheri Strickland, president of the N.C. Association of Educators. The head of the teachers' group criticized Perry for slashing money for schools in Texas.
"Dramatically cutting the education budget," she said, "means layoffs, positions going unfilled, teachers in unemployment lines and an increase in class sizes."
Also Thursday, Bachmann spoke at a fundraiser at Troutman's Barbecue in Concord, with proceeds going to the N.C. Republican Party.
She told the crowd of more than 100 that she was the best candidate to ensure that Obama is a one-term president.
"I want you to know my spine is made of titanium," she said. "I'll put my backbone up against any man running in this race. ... We can't settle for a compromise candidate or a moderate candidate."
Some Republicans who attended both campaign events in Charlotte on Thursday said that Bachmann and Perry, whatever their shortcomings, had strengths that would make them formidable candidates in North Carolina - likely to again be a crucial swing state in the 2012 presidential election.
Scott Stone, the Republican candidate for Charlotte mayor, downplayed Perry's unpolished debating style, saying his record was more important.
"A lot more is made of debates than needs to be," Stone said. "He's got a great jobs record and executive experience."
Stone also gave Bachmann a thumbs up: "She's incredibly bright and has a great command of details. ... At a time when North Carolinians are frustrated and looking for solutions, she'd be a strong candidate for president."
It was Perry's first visit to Charlotte as a presidential contender, Bachmann's second.
Both are likely to show up again on their way to campaign in neighboring South Carolina, which has historically had one of the earliest and most important GOP presidential primaries.
Mecklenburg County GOP Chairman Gideon Moore, who met with both Perry and Bachmann on Thursday, said he'll be happy to welcome them back.
"Nobody is going to be an absolutely perfect candidate," he said. "But they both are very strong, and they bring different issues to the table. He's got the Texas (jobs) record to run on and she's been a fighter of 'Obamacare' in Washington."
Staff writers Adam Bell and Steve Lyttle contributed.
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