A blue April sky beckoned some 250 Democrats to the 10th Congressional District straw poll in the Catawba County town of Newton Saturday. When the speeches were done and the votes counted, there was only one big surprise: For the U.S. Senate nomination, Chapel Hill businessman Jim Neal ran ahead of state Sen. Kay Hagan, D-Guilford, 127 votes to 108. Three other, minor candidates received no votes.

The 10th is a heavily Republican district in th foothills, and this was a self-selected group of its Democrats, so it’s debatable how indicative the results were of the statewide May 6 primary. At a minimum, though, they are evidence that Neal’s grassroots campaign poses a challenge to Hagan’s status as the presumptive nominee.

That’s what WTVD, Durham’s ABC station, thought too when it set out months ago to arrange a televised Hagan-Neal debate. Two WTVD-commissioned polls by SurveyUSA, including one taken in early April, showed the two candidates in a virtual dead heat with more than half the voters undecided.

Neal wanted in, but Hagan didn’t, and last week she made it official: Hagan won’t debate Neal head-to-head, as the TV station proposed, because it would be unfair to the other candidates, Marcus Williams, Howard Staley and Duskin Lassiter. “We do not feel comfortable participating in a debate where some of the candidates were excluded,” said Hagan spokeswoman Colleen Flanagan. “As others have noted, in North Carolina, we have primaries, not coronations.”

That last bit was a dig at Neal, who’d used the same words to call out James Carville, Democratic mouthpiece, at the Young Democrats’ state convention a week earlier. Carville, in a strategy session, started talking up Hagan’s chances against Republican U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole as if Nealwho was in the roomdidn’t exist.

“In North Carolina, we have primaries, not coronations,” Neal told Carville acidly.

Neal’s campaign ripped Hagan’s refusal to debate as “cynical and disingenuous.” Her strategy “is to raise more money, avoid legitimate debate and blanket the airwaves with television ads,” his statement said. “It amounts to selling our elections to the highest bidder.”

Hagan is indeed raising more money. Her campaign announced that she collected $820,000 in the first three months of ’08, bringing her total to $1.4 million. Neal, who loaned himself $120,000 and raised another $95,000 in the last quarter of ’07, won’t say how much he’s added since. Neither has yet filed official disclosure reports, which are due April 24. (The other three candidates’ ’07 totals ranged from zero to $635.)

Neal’s aides do say, though, that their own fundraising hasn’t been helped by the fact that the national Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, headed by U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., is also touting Hagan as the inevitable nominee. As evidence, they point to the DSCC Web site, which is long on pro-Hagan (and anti-Dole) items while relegating Neal to the list of minor candidates “also vying for the nomination.”

The DSCC, along with state Democratic leaders, talked Hagan into running last fall just weeks after she announced that she wouldn’t. In between, though, Neal became the only declared candidate, and North Carolina’s first serious gay contender for state or national office.