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Expect Pat McCrory vs. Roy Cooper in 2016 

The low-key AG all but announces campaign

Roy Cooper, North Carolina's normally reserved attorney general, has put himself in the spotlight in recent weeks, indicating his intention to run for governor in 2016. Behind the scenes, he's made moves that all but assure he will be the Democratic nominee.

On Oct. 15, Cooper published his first Huffington Post blog, "North Carolina: Threatening Fifty Years of Progress in Ten Months." Cooper praises former North Carolina Democratic governors Terry Sanford and Jim Hunt for their contributions to the state's education systems and economy, and he explains why he feels the state's progressive history is under attack.

"For the first time since Reconstruction, North Carolina has a General Assembly and governorship controlled by the extreme factions of the Republican Party, and their legislative super majority means their power is unchecked," writes Cooper. "In ten short months, they have set out to deliberately and systematically undo fifty years of progress. It's as if the Tea Party created its own playground of extremist fantasies."

He goes on to criticize "tax giveaways for the top 1 percent" in the state, overcrowded classrooms, school vouchers, cuts to unemployment benefits, and Gov. Pat McCrory's refusal to expand Medicaid.

Tack on "and that's why I'm running for governor" at the end and it reads like a campaign announcement.

The post came a month after Cooper launched a Twitter page and Facebook profile and only a few days after he changed the name of his fundraising committee from "Roy Cooper for Attorney General" to "Roy Cooper for North Carolina."

In September, he dropped the biggest hint yet at a gubernatorial campaign, in a speech at a Burke County Democratic Party dinner.

"The good news is that people are paying attention. They are coming alive, are ready to move, are hungry for change and in need of leaders who can help them," he told the crowd. "We have a lot of work to do in 2013 and 2014. I plan to be running in 2016, and not as attorney general."

A week later, he was keynote speaker at an event in Asheville. Asked by the press if he was running for governor, he said: "It's a little early to make a formal announcement, but certainly that's in the plans."

There is no public official in the state more popular than Cooper, who was first elected attorney general in 2000. He was the top statewide vote-getter in 2008 and 2012 and was totally unopposed last year in the primary and general elections. Cooper passed on running for U.S. Senate in 2008 and 2010, and he's never run for governor.

"Given his history as someone who's been talked about as a candidate before, who didn't end up running, he had to get out there now," says Gary Pearce, Jim Hunt's biographer and longtime press aide.

Cooper's background as attorney general could translate into the same "tough on crime" persona that Hunt often used to appeal to conservatives.

"Roy fits a model of Democratic governors... He's a lot like Jim Hunt and Terry Sanford," says Pearce, referring to Cooper's small-town upbringing and moderate credentials.

Word is, Cooper made feeler calls over the summer to inquire about fundraising support for a potential campaign. He must have liked what he heard.

The only other Democratic figure in the state with as much buzz is Anthony Foxx, the former Charlotte mayor who's now the secretary of transportation in President Obama's cabinet. Foxx could quietly organize a campaign in 2015, taking the reins by leaving the administration early. But Cooper's emergence virtually eliminates that already unlikely scenario.

Cooper will also scare off other high-level potential candidates, such as Bob Etheridge, Elaine Marshall, Brad Miller and Erskine Bowles. "I'd be shocked if any other big name got into the race," says Michael Bitzer, professor of political science at Catawba College.

Had Cooper remained undecided until 2015, up-and-coming Democrats like Janet Cowell, Cal Cunningham, Tricia Cotham or Eric Mansfield could have waged insurgent campaigns and soaked up donations and grassroots volunteers. Now donations and activists will be locked up. "You're going to see him solidify a lot of the establishment support and build relationships with the base," says Democratic strategist Thomas Mills.

Because of redistricting, even a big push by Democrats in the 2014 statewide legislative election will likely only net a few pickups in the General Assembly, which means defeating McCrory is the only chance Democrats have at rolling back the conservative agenda for years to come. "This is a good thing for Democrats not to have a divisive primary," says Bitzer. "He'll have a clean shot to the nomination."

Cooper will also make for a good leader of the opposition movement known as Moral Monday.

"The attorney general has felt the need to get out and start working for change in everything, from his rhetoric to his travelling schedule [speeches he's given around the state]," says Morgan Jackson, a consultant with Roy Cooper for North Carolina who previously served as special assistant in the attorney general's office. "The change of direction in North Carolina has left him very deeply concerned."

McCrory spent close to $12 million on his 2012 bid, which means, in addition to making the speaking rounds, Cooper must spend the next year focused on raising money for a race that could require $15 million to win. "The two most important things will be money and message — you have to raise a lot of money to run for governor," says Pearce. "But he probably won't formally announce until after the 2014 election."

The greatest challenge for Cooper won't be winning the nomination but balancing his role as an unofficial candidate with the duties of his official office. Cooper has spoken out against the voter-identification law and Amendment One but will soon defend both in court.

In September, the Justice Department sued North Carolina, alleging that the voter-ID law discriminates against racial minorities. McCrory wants Cooper to hire an independent counsel to defend the bill, given Cooper's public criticisms of it. Cooper says hiring such a counselor would be a waste of taxpayer money.

He is on the record as supporting same-sex marriage but must defend the state's anti-gay marriage law from a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. He recently found himself in another tricky situation when the Register of Deeds in Buncombe County accepted 10 marriage licenses from same-sex couples, saying that he would hold on to the applications until Cooper provided legal advice. Cooper's response was that he will defend the state's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage but that he "personally supports marriage equality."

For someone who long avoided controversial issues, Cooper now must walk a fine line of opposing Amendment One while defending it in court and mounting a campaign in a state that voted 2-1 in favor of it. He'll probably reveal how exactly he plans to do that soon, when he headlines the Equality NC Foundation's annual gala, on Nov. 9.

But he likely won't back away from his opinions, even after McCrory suggested he keep them to himself.

"If he believes something is a good public policy, he will speak out for it," Jackson says. "If he believes it's something that will harm the state of North Carolina, he will speak out against it. That's his position."

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