MONROE, N.C. (AP) — National Democratic and Republican leaders are breathlessly watching Tuesday's special election for an empty House seat from North Carolina for early clues about next year's presidential and congressional races. But for the two candidates, the race is less glamour than grind.
Democrat Dan McCready and Republican Dan Bishop are laboring to capture the attention of voters not used to elections in late summer of odd-numbered years. With the key likely to be turnout, the White House was sending President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence to the district Monday in hopes of preventing an embarrassing loss in the Republican-leaning district.
While Trump's appearance is guaranteed to generate headlines — usually about himself, if his past rally appearances are any indication — Bishop and McCready campaigned hard through the final weekend.
The seat is open after state officials vacated Republican Mark Harris' narrow November victory over McCready following charges of vote fraud by a GOP operative. McCready is a former Marine who started a company that's financed solar energy projects, Bishop an attorney and state senator who sponsored the state's restrictions on bathroom use by transgender people, which were later repealed.
Telling moments from their contest's last days.
WELL, IT IS FOOTBALL SEASON
Sports matter in North Carolina. And the last weekend before Tuesday's special election happened to coincide with the opening of the NFL season and the early days of college football.
Both candidates experienced the impact first hand.
McCready, 36, and family went Saturday night to Fuller's Restaurant in Pembroke. It bills itself as an old-fashioned barbecue joint and McCready calls it his favorite dining spot in Robeson County, which gave him 56% of its votes last November.
Campaign aides were expecting the restaurant to be packed with diners, offering McCready a chance to greet voters, but it was mostly empty. People at Fuller's had a ready explanation: the University of North Carolina at Pembroke was home playing an evening football game down the street.
On Sunday, Bishop and his wife Jo attended the 11 a.m. service at the vast Lee Park Church in Monroe, in heavily Republican Union County. The church has around 2,000 members and while its 9 a.m. service was full, the later service was crowded but not capacity.
"The only hindrance is the Panthers play today," Pastor Chris Justice said before things began. The Carolina Panthers opened their season Sunday afternoon 40 minutes away in Charlotte.
CAMPAIGNS CAN BE FULL OF SURPRISES
How's this for timing — Bishop, 55, sat through a church service at which the sermon was titled, "How Could a Christian Vote for Donald Trump? How could a Christian not vote for Donald Trump?"
Bishop is a Trump loyalist who credited the president for a "booming economy" and called him "a man of character" in an interview after the service. Interviews over the weekend showed that many Republicans in the district are devoted Trump supporters, but some suburban independents said he repelled them.
Justice's sermon took a neutral stance on the question, urging worshippers to let their religious beliefs guide them. He said he chose the topic long before he knew Bishop would attend.
Bishop said afterward that Justice had done a "masterful" job.
As if to underscore many voters' inattention to Tuesday's voting, Justice's wife, Becky, helped close the service and urged worshippers to vote, adding, "Is it this Tuesday?"
Trump carried the congressional district by 11 percentage points in 2016. His popularity with Republicans has left Bishop unafraid to tout his support for Trump and asserting that it won't hurt him in the district's suburbs, largely around Charlotte, where Bishop lives.
McCready doesn't want to appear too liberal and risk his chances among the district's moderate voters. He's not had any Democratic 2020 presidential hopefuls visit for him, has distanced himself from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and liberal lightning rod Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and has pulled some punches against Trump.
McCready says Trump must go but must be defeated by an election, not impeachment. In an interview, he said he could work with Trump on some issues. And he said Bishop and his "far-right allies" are "spewing nothing but hate" and divisiveness, but didn't explicitly include Trump by name in that group.
A VERY LONG HAUL
McCready began his campaign for the House seat in spring 2017, before Mark Harris defeated then-Rep. Robert Pittenger for the GOP's 2018 nomination.
He's been running for the seat for 27 months. And that means he's spent a lot more money than Bishop and started this year's race with high name recognition.
But there's another way to measure it.
"I was pregnant with our 2-year-old when this started," McCready's wife, Laura, told volunteers Saturday at a campaign office in Waxhaw. "He is now walking and talking and has started pre-school."
At her side was the couple's eldest of their four children, Anna Glenn. She asked if the 8-year old remembers when McCready wasn't running for Congress."
"Not really," was the answer.