While there are many unanswered questions about the 2012 election cycle — about the economy, the Republican presidential nomination, and the contours of North Carolina’s electoral map, for example — no mystery remains about the state’s gubernatorial election. It will be a rematch between Democrat Beverly Perdue and Republican Pat McCrory.

Their 2008 contest was one of the closest in state history. Perdue, then lieutenant governor, narrowly defeated the outgoing Charlotte mayor, in part because of an Obama surge that benefitted Democratic candidates all the way down the ballot.

Both nominees had won what initially promised to be competitive primaries. Perdue defeated Democratic rising star Richard Moore, the state treasurer and former Hunt administration official. McCrory defeated three other major GOP candidates: state Sen. Fred Smith, conservative activist and attorney Bill Graham, and former Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr.

If you’re a fan of party primaries, 2012 will disappoint you. Neither Perdue nor McCrory seems likely to draw a serious challenge. Moore, Smith, Graham, and Orr all appear to be done with runs for elective office, though not necessarily with public affairs. None of the Democratic or Republican leaders in the General Assembly has expressed any interest in the race. No members of the state’s con-gressional delegation or mayors of the state’s largest cities have, either.

In short, no experienced challengers with political heft and fundraising po-tential are on the horizon right now for either of the 2008 nominees. So they are already preparing their general-election campaigns for 2012.

Just because next year’s race for governor will likely be a rematch, however, doesn’t mean it will be simply a replay of their first contest. In fact, the 2012 race will be significantly different.

The main reason is that Perdue is now an incumbent governor, not an aspiring one. Whether she likes it or not, voters will reward Perdue with reelection based not on what she promises to do during a second term but how they feel about what she did during her first one — and whether they think North Carolina is headed in the right direction as a consequence of her tenure. If the electorate is more optimistic then than they are now, she has a shot at four more years.

If the electorate continues to feel as nervous about their econom-ic prospects as they do right now, Perdue will have a hard time winning reelection.

It’s not a political dynamic unique to North Carolina. In 2010, incumbent governors or candidates of the same party of outgoing governors were wiped out across most of the country. Because Democrats held most of the governorships going into the cycle last year, they lost most of the races. But some Republican-held governorships flipped Democratic last year, too.

To say that Perdue’s fate lies with voter perceptions about the future is not to say that Pat McCrory will be a bystander. It will be his task to draw connections between the state’s biggest problems and either inaction or wrongheaded action by Perdue.

McCrory won’t win by running against the errors and misdeeds of prior Democratic governors. And he won’t win through some kind of complex trian-gulation maneuver, or by staying warm and fuzzy. Instead, McCrory will need to articulate a positive agenda of conservative reform and contrast it with the failed policies of a liberal status quo.

For her part, Perdue won’t win by running against Republican legislators, most of whom the voters of the state couldn’t pick out of a lineup. She’ll have to defeat her actual opponent, McCrory, by raising doubts about his agenda while highlighting any signs of economic progress evident by next fall and claiming credit for them.

Here’s what won’t be different next year. Just as in 2008, the Obama cam-paign will be competing aggressively for North Carolina. Democrats, Republicans, and affiliated groups will spend tens of millions of dollars on broadcast ads and organization to get their vote out.

And, once again, history will be made. North Carolina will either reelect its first female governor or elect its first Republican governor of the 21st century.

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