Final answer? Don’t have one. This is strictly first impression. And I want to say, too, that I have yet to make Cal Cunningham’s acquaintance or Ken Lewis’s. (They are the other two announced candidates in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate.) So in reporting that Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, when she spoke Tuesday night in Cary, gave me no reason to think she ought to be the next U.S. senator from North Carolina, I’m not making a comparative judgment. I’m just saying that any candidate, but especially a Democrat challenger in 2010, needs to show some fire and tell you exactly how she’s going to make a difference in Washington when she gets there. Marshall, in Cary, did a poor job on both counts.

Marshall spoke to a small group of Democrats — 40 or so — at Glenaire, the retirement community. To say Democrats are discouraged, after what happened in the Massachusetts Senate race and to the goal of reforming the health care system, is to state the obvious.

At any rate, there was a pall in the room at Glenaire, a feeling that the Democrats are toast this year in North Carolina and that Sen. Richard Burr, the Republican incumbent, is as snug in his seat as a leader in the party of “NO” ever could be.

It was Marshall’s job — it is her job in the primary season — to dispel that negative vibe and persuade Democrats (or delude them, but who doesn’t enjoy a good delusion?) that if she’s the nominee, by god she’ll take Burr out and then she’ll go to Washington and, and — —

Well, I’m not the only one who walked out thinking she’d whiffed her chance to fill in the blank. The commentaries in the lobby were not flattering.

Frankly, I’m not sure anyone was ready, this gloomy January night, to be persuaded that Burr will be beaten come November. But they were ready to hear — aching to hear — how a Democrat will take the fight to him and make him answer for all the crap the Republicans are pulling in Washington and for the Senate’s bipartisan failures on so many fronts.

Marshall began by reading — yes, reading — what looked to be a new speech. Special interests are the problem in Washington, she said. Giving people a voice again is the answer. … I do understand the levers of power.

OK. (I’ve just culled the only good bits from a 20-minute talk.)

But in Q&A, her answers to questions about jobs, fiscal stimulus, climate change, infrastructure investments and health care were simply baffling. On climate change, she talked about North Carolina’s policy of incentives for new businesses (she has issues with it) and trademark infringements from Canada. On jobs, her answer focused on improving air travel in the Triangle (to attract more foreign investment, she said. Globalization has its good side …). On the Republicans’ success at framing every Democratic initiative as socialism or a giveaway, “I don’t have an answer for that,” was her answer.

What Senate committee would be want to be on? she was asked. Military and foreign affairs, she said. (That’s two different committees, by the way.) And agriculture. And education. And she’s interested in the welfare of the family. And the judiciary, she’s really interested in that. “I’m interested in everything,” she finally said.

I don’t mean to pile on, but when she was asked to give her “take” on filibusters, after the questioner had given a quick summary of their history and the recent GOP abuses of the filibuster proces, here’s what she said:

“Let me tell you, I don’t know exactly what I would say on amending it, but I think the minority party ought to be forced to say something other than no on these things. … And I have to tell you, I wish there was more transparency in Washington on the debates.”

The words “Joe Lieberman” didn’t occur to her. Or “Mitch McConnell.”

I asked her, if she were in the Senate now, what she would do “right now” to try to move the health care legislation forward. Her answer, after a long pause:

‘Right now? That’s a tough question. I’m not envious of the president, the situation that he’s got on his hands. My sense is, the presidency is hanging in the balance. I think we do have to have a health care reform. We have got to get something that, ah, keeps costs from getting out of line. I do believe there is a role for government in health care. And you know, people slam us for that, slam me for that. When electrification came aroundhere’s a very good example of why there’s a rolethe power companies built out in the cities and built out in the suburbs, but they never went out in the rural areas, because it was too expensive to serve out there. We have places, and we have underserved populations in the health care situation that do need to have that opportunity through government.

Now some of my ideas areI think they’re in some of these bills, but we’ve got to be sure that we have more health care clinics, I’m a huge health care clinic (sic). There’s actually a system here in North Carolina, a Chamber of Commerce and some businesses and a four- or five-unit health care group have formed their own insurance company, in essence. You have to be a member of the Chamber of Commerce, and they pay a certain amount …”

She wasn’t done. Doctors who choose to practice in rural areas need more government help paying off their student loans, she said. Somthing needs to be done to keep the system honest. Costs are out of control. These were her ideas. She concluded as follows:

Now, how you would incorporate them into the package that’s up there right now, that sounds likeuh, what do you call itreconciliation of, uh, elements that may or may not be in there. I’ve been on board supporting the public option. I just think we need to get off the dime.

You know, as I’m finishing up, I’m thinking that Marshall may well be the Democratic nominee. Cunningham is a former one-term state senator of no particular note. Lewis is a novice candidate and a corporate lawyer. Marshall has run statewide, is a woman in a party where the women outvote the men about 3-to-2, and is well-liked in general — hey, I like her. But if she’s going to be the Senate candidate, she’s got to get some game. I’ve seen N.C. State point guards put on a better show.