They don’t draw big crowds. Fact is, unless they have Branford Marsalis on the bill, as Hampton Dellinger did for an early fundraiser in Durham, or someone calls the well-heeled set together in Raleigh, as happened recently for Walter Dalton, these candidates are pleased when they can gather a few folks for ham biscuits in somebody’s back yard.

We’re talking about the four Democratic candidates for lieutenant governor: Dalton, Dellinger, Dan Besse and Pat Smathers. (With three months to go until the official filing period for the May 6 primary, there are no Republicans, though state Sen. Robert Pittenger, R-Mecklenburg, says he’s considering it.)

These are not exactly household names. On closer inspection, though, they seem like very solid citizens who are broadly representative of their party in ideology, if not in gender, race or geography. (No getting around it, they’re four white guys with law degrees who don’t hail from Down East.)

And if you’re wondering, “Does anybody care who wins the Democratic nomination?” the answer is yes. The Progressive Democrats of North Carolina care a lot, says Pete MacDowell, the group’s president. “The lieutenant governor’s race has the potential to be one in which the candidates voice progressive ideas on a wide range of issue across the state,” he says.

Whereas, MacDowell adds, the Democratic gubernatorial primary between Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue and State Treasurer Richard Moore “looks like it’s between two ho-hum party insiders.”

The PDNC has designated the lieutenant governor primary as the race in which it will try to exercise some influence. Thus, when the organization holds its annual meeting Dec. 7-8 in Chapel Hill, it will feature not the gubernatorial candidates but a lite-gov forum instead. Immediately afterward, the group will vote on whether to endorse one of the four contenders and, assuming the answer is yes, which one.

Judging only by their early supporters and fundraising, the front-runners are Dalton, a powerful six-term state senator from Rutherford County, and Dellinger, a Durham attorney and former close aide to Gov. Mike Easley. As of June 30, the most recent reporting date, Dellinger had $619,000 in cash on hand in his campaign treasury to Dalton’s $591,000. Besse’s total was $102,000, while Smathers had just $3,800.

Based on their records, however, the Progressive Democrats’ choice is likely between Dellinger and Besse, a two-term Winston-Salem city council member and a longtime leader on environmental issues in the state. “Dan has long-standing relationships with progressives,” says Chris Lizak, a leader in the Wake County Progressive Democrats, “and he’s really been working hard to get our support. Hampton hasn’t been in our circles as long, but we’re pleased that he’s self-identified as a progressive and has picked up on a lot of our issues. For me, it’s between those two.”

Dalton calls himself a moderate, though Besse and Dellinger point to votes he’s cast in the Senate that have a strong conservative tinge. Dalton’s ratings from the Conservation Council of N.C., they note, have been among the lowest of any Senate Democrat. And he was one of 18 senators (including 10 Democrats) who voted against a 2001 bill banning the execution of defendants with IQs below 70., though he did vote for a later version that became law.

While Besse and Dellinger didn’t talk much about each other in interviews with the Indy, they did discuss Dalton, a clear indication that their first task is to prevent him from winning the May 6 primary outright. But with four candidates running aggressive campaigns, Besse says it’s unlikely anyone will reach the 40 percent threshold needed to win, which means the real contest is to finish in the top two and qualify for a runoff election June 3.

Smathers, meanwhile, comes to the race as a mountain populist with a big personality and an issue to match: It’s “home rule,” a change that, if enacted, would turn government in this state upside-down. Since the Depression, local governments have been limited to the powers that the General Assembly assigns to them. Unless the state “enables” an action, that is, it can’t be done. In contrast, in a “home rule” state, local governments have broad authority to legislate except where expressly limited by the state.

Wrestling power away from Raleigh could be a powerful idea with the voters if Smathers can figure out how to promote itand himselfwithout much money.

Ideas are one reason why the lieutenant governor’s office matters, says MacDowell. The other is that the “lite governor” frequently becomes the real governor either by succession or by future election. So even though the office itself has relatively little power, the officeholder occupies a “bully pulpit” to support or challenge state policies.

MacDowell points to the last contested Democratic primary for lieutenant governor in 2000, when Perdue defeated a progressive attorney named Ed Wilson. Perdue, a powerful state senator like Dalton, was the insiders’ candidate who, even then, had her sights set on being governor. For the past eight years as second-in-command, she has remained an insider, with a limited policy agenda of her own.

On the other hand, Wilson was an outspoken advocate of campaign finance reform, including public financing in statewide races. He opposed capital punishment and the lottery. Imagine, says MacDowell, if Wilsonnow a judgehad been lieutenant governor for the last eight years instead of Perdue, giving voice to progressive policies from the second-highest office in the state.

So far, none of the Democratic candidates are pushing campaign finance reform as an issue or repeal of the lottery. And all four favor capital punishment in some cases.

Where they do differ is in their backgrounds, styles, the issues they’d emphasize from the “pulpit,” and their approach to being lieutenant governorwhether as team player, independent voice or a combination of both.

Walter Dalton

Dalton isn’t running as the “establishment candidate,” but he doesn’t reject the label, either. “I think you have to be part of a team” to be effective, he says. He cites as a model the Senate Democratic caucus, well known in Raleigh for keeping its internal divisions to itself. “We’re a very diverse group; we have great discussions there,” Dalton says. “But when we come out, we try to come out strong, with a unified voice. That’s how you accomplish something.”

As lieutenant governor, Dalton adds, he wouldn’t hesitate to speak out if there’s a “pressing issue” on which he disagrees with the governor or Senate leadershipassuming both remain Democratic. But first, he’ll talk to them. And listen. No freelancing. His view of the office is to fit his own ideas into the bigger Democratic scheme, then speak about them “with an amplified voice.”

That’s how the easy-going Dalton, 58, has operated in his six Senate terms, advancing steadily within the ranks to become co-chair of the education committee and then co-chair of the powerful appropriations committeewhich means he’s one of the handful of Democrats in the room when the budgets are hatched. “You learn all the needs,” he says. “But there’s never enough money.”

His grasp of the state budget is one reason he believes he’s ready to be governor, which should be the voters’ first consideration, he says. “The question is, are you ready to step in? If you think about it, it will be a crisis, because you’ve lost your governor for whatever reason,” Dalton explains. “I would be ready to be governor in that instance.”

Dalton’s Senate record, like the Democratic caucus, is pro-business and fiscally moderate, with strong support for education and university spending, but skimpy allocations to social services funding and an inclination to keep taxes down on the wealthy. At the top of Dalton’s campaign agenda: Keep taxes low. Maintain North Carolina’s high rating as a place to do business. And keep the state’s AAA bond rating intact.

Being pro-business is not a negative, Dalton argues, when you represent a part of the state, as he does, that has been hammered by factory closings and suffered from double-digit unemployment in the not-too-distant past. He voted for incentives packages to lure new companies, but with the requirement that the companies offer jobs with good wages and health insurance, he says. “To create jobs, to give those people renewed hopeif that’s pro-business, I’m all for it,” he concludes.

Dalton’s opponents, though, say he favored business too much when he broke with the caucus in 2001 to vote against the Easley administration’s Clean Smokestacks Act when it first came to the Senate floor, saying it would be too costly for consumers. He was one of just two Senate Democrats to do so, but again, supported the final version. The landmark law forced utilities to curb emissions from coal-fired plants. Meanwhile, he supported another bill that, if enacted, would have allowed new factories to be built without first receiving air-quality permits from state environmental regulators.

He is also under fire for co-sponsoring a 2005 Republican bill calling for a constitutional referendum on the anti-gay “Defense of Marriage Amendment.” Dalton says his constituents, egged on by one of the House sponsors, Rep. Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, whose district is contained within Dalton’s, were demanding the right to vote on the question. Before and since, Dalton says, he didn’t co-sponsor a half-dozen other DOMA bills, and seeking now to represent a “statewide constituency,” as he puts it, says he doesn’t support it now.

Dalton does have progressive credentials. The Housing Coalition of N.C. named him Legislator of the Year in ’06 for his help in creating a pilot program to address mortgage foreclosures, according to executive director Chris Estes. Estes calls Dalton “a good person to work with” whose concern for people in need is genuine but constrained by his district’s strong conservative bent.

Dalton’s main claim to leadership fame is on education, which is also the ground he’d stake out as lieutenant governor, he saysin the tradition of the so-called “education governors” like Jim Hunt and Terry Sanford. As education co-chair in the Senate, Dalton helped write the law that turned a Gaston County model into Easley’s signature “Learn and Earn” plan; it allows high school students to earn community college credits while enrolled in work-study courses like the one offered at WakeMed in Raleigh.

Dalton’s new proposal is called ROPE (Reaching One’s Potential for Excellence), which would allow good students to attend an N.C. community college tuition-free for two years; thanks to a wealthy local businessman, there’s a ROPE program now at East Rutherford High School.

Dalton’s backers are a “who’s who” of Democratic centrists in the state, including former Lt. Gov. Bob Jordan, ex-Glaxo CEO and Democratic Senate candidate Charlie Sanders, Senate President Marc Basnight, and such business leaders as Bob Greczyn, CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of N.C., and Progress Energy CEO Bill Johnson.

Hampton Dellinger

At 40, he’s the youngest candidate, but Dellinger has a long history in politics, thanks to his mom, who taught for 30 years at the Institute of Government at UNC-Chapel Hill, and to his father, who served as a former Solicitor General of the United States under President Clinton. His parents, Walter and Anne Dellinger, are famous liberals in the Triangle, leading proponents of women’s reproductive rights and affirmative-action policies to assist minorities.

Not surprisingly, these are Hampton Dellinger’s top two issues. He anticipates that the U.S. Supreme Court may overturn Roe v. Wade and return abortion questions to the states. If elected, he says, he would speak out for women’s health as the “overriding issue” and for “broad reproductive rights” in the first and second trimesters of pregnancyconsistent with Roe. He plans to challenge Dalton and the others to match him.

As for affirmative action, when Dellinger was fresh out of Yale law school, he helped write the plaintiff’s brief in the landmark Adarand case, which resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court establishing the standards for governments to give preference to minority-owned firms when awarding contracts. Affirmative action is still critical to North Carolina’s ability to “lead the South in bridging the racial divide,” he says.

“Those two are traditions, not just of my family,” Dellinger says, “but of the Democratic Party and now of the state of North Carolina.”

Dellinger has worked in state politics for nearly two decades, including stints as a spokesman for Senate candidate Harvey Gantt and a campaign manager for Mike Easley when he ran for attorney general and for governor. Dellinger served for almost five years as a deputy attorney general under AG Easley and for three as Gov. Easley’s legal counsel. That experience allows him to claim the same grasp of state government as Dalton, albeit from a different vantage point.

However, Dellinger has never run for office nor held an independent post. So when he talks about his record, it’s the progressive parts of Easley’s record: stopping Blue Cross’ attempt to become a for-profit insurer; cracking down on hog-farm pollution; negotiating the tobacco settlement, which ended quotas and paid off quota-holders; and diversifying the state’s judiciary, including minority appointments to the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.

“Some people have a voting record,” he maintains. “I have a track record.”

Dellinger’s supporters include such top legal progressives as former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Jim Exum, African-American leaders like Duke historian John Hope Franklin and Durham Mayor Bill Bell, and younger Democrats like state Rep. Ty Harrell, D-Raleigh, who calls Dellinger “part of the new generation of leaders” coming of age in the party.

Dellinger’s energy and passion distinguishes him from the other candidates, Harrell says, adding, “He really believes in the possibilities of government.”

Indeed, his own energy is the first thing Dellinger proposes to add to government as lieutenant governor. He would use technology, his understanding of obscure agency paper trails and a “24/7” work ethic to connect people to what’s really happening in Raleigh, he says, establishing his office as “the source for open government.”

“Instead of just the press fighting for open records, I plan to be a leader in making public records accessible and freely available,” Dellinger pledges.

As for the “bully pulpit,” Dellinger says one issue is paramount to him: raising the school dropout age from 16 to 18. It may be symbolic, he concedes, but “sometimes we miss the obviouswhich is the signal we’re sending to young people” that we don’t care if they finish high school or not.

By campaigning for the higher age, Dellinger says, he also would advocate for the schools to de-emphasize multiple-choice tests and instead focus on individual students’ needs, freeing pupils and teachers alike to develop their creativity and problem-solving skills. “Give teachers the time to help students find their passion” so they don’t want to drop out, he says.

Dellinger says flatly he’ll advocate more spending for schools in needy counties even if it requires tax increases, and says Democrats were wrong this year when they repealed a small income-tax surcharge on those whose annual incomes are $200,000 and up.

But he insists, too, that progressives guard against wasteful spending. Dellinger proposes a top-to-bottom review to find programs the state is outsourcingor subsidizingbut shouldn’t. Mental-health services are an example of the former, he thinks. Of the latter: The Randy Parton Theater in Roanoke Rapids, where a state-funded agency helped Dolly Parton’s brother get a sweetheart deal to jump-start a hotel-entertainment venture.

Dan Besse

“I’m the progressive candidate,” says 52-year- old Dan Besse, “with the record of experience to prove it.”

That’s a claim the one-time legal aid lawyer backs up with a hefty résumé, including two six-year terms on the N.C. Environmental Management Commission and the chairmanship of the state’s Coastal Resources Commission, among numerous positions to which he was appointed to represent environmental interests. Besse can also cite victories on issues ranging from strengthening the state’s erosion-control rules to tougher air-quality and coastal-protection regulations.

“A lot of what the environmental community’s been able to achieve at the state level,” says John Runkle, general counsel for the Conservation Council of N.C. and a Besse backer, “is because of Dan being in there asking the right questions, forging the compromises and taking a real leadership role.”

Which is essentially what Besse promises as lieutenant governor. He’s not running for the office because he wants to be governor one day, he says, though he doesn’t rule it out. He’s running because he thinks, from the No. 2 position, he can ask tough questions about state policy that others aren’t asking.

“I will not be afraid to speak out publicly when that becomes necessary to prevent neglect of a concern,” he says.

Did that sound a little wonky? That’s Besse: slow-talking, detail-driven, careful not to exaggerate. “When it comes to the details,” he quipped once to a meeting of progressive Democrats in Raleigh, “I can wonk it up with the best of them.”

When Besse talks about the “bully pulpit” possibilities inherent in the office of lieutenant governor, he points first to the various boards and councils on which he’d have a seat, including the state Board of Education, where he promises to push hard for equity in the public schools.

One-third of students drop out of high school; for minorities, the figure is about one-half. That’s unacceptable, he says. And a board member who asks the critical questions, and “is willing to push past the pat answers to hone in on the place where the problems originate,” can do something about it, he argues.

He also thinks the lieutenant governor can influence close legislative battles like the one waged earlier this year over Senate Bill 3, the renewable-energy bill that someincluding Bessesay was hijacked by the utility companies.

Besse went to Raleigh to speak out against SB 3’s “incentives for overbuilding coal and nuclear plants,” he notes, but no ranking state officials were voicing the same positions and his objections stalled. Had the lieutenant governor objected at the critical moment, however, as he says he would have, the bill might’ve included stronger environmental protections, he says.

Besse’s main focus in the campaign is sustainable-growth policies, including conserving water resources and forging a closer link between state transportation spending and local land-use policies. “As North Carolina gets more urban,” Besse says, “we need someone with experience dealing with the growth challenges in our urban areas, including the land-use conflicts, and a willingness to support strong pollution controls.”

As a Winston-Salem council member, he says, he knows what the problems are; he also understands they can’t be conquered all at once, and will require steady, step-by-step strengthening of the environmental rules.

Neither Perdue nor Moore, the Democratic gubernatorial candidates, has much experience in this vein, Besse argues, since both are from rural counties and never served in local government. “They bring real strengths to the table,” he quickly adds, “but what we need [as lieutenant governor] is someone who’ll complement them.”

Pat Smathers

He is the long-shot in the race, but the 53-year-old Smathers says he has connections the other candidates don’t. The Duke connection: Smathers played football there on an athletic scholarship, lettering as an offensive lineman. The Wake Forest connection: That’s where Smathers earned his law degree and was president of the student bar association.

The military connection: Smathers served 28 years in the Army National Guard, retiring early in 2007 with the rank of colonel. He is the only lieutenant governor candidate with military service. (None of the current Council of State officials has it either, he notes.)

Finally, there’s the disaster connection. As mayor of Canton, the small town in Haywood County that is home to the giant Blue Ridge Paper Co. plant (formerly Champion International), Smathers presided in 2004 over not one but two devastating hurricanesin just 10 days. Canton was flooded both times, sustaining damages of $100 million, including $10 million to municipal facilities alone.

“I’ve been there as mayor of a town that darned near got washed awaytwice,” he says. “I’ve shown I can get stuff done.”

The gregarious Smathers drew two lessons from this experience. One, “we need to empower local government.” Most government services are local, especially if you include schools, he argues. But government in North Carolina is “Raleigh-centric, and it’s choking our communities.”

Secondly, changing the system of government from state control to “home rule” will take years of slow, patient advocacy. “But I’m a trench fighter, a lineman, and I’m used to gutting it out.”

Smathers is also a general-practice lawyer and school board attorney for the Haywood County district with long ties in his mountain community. Like Dellinger, he remembers campaigning for Democrats as a tot, not in Chapel Hill, but in Canton in front of Smathers Market. He’s a proponent of small-business incubators and employee-ownership efforts like the one that allowed Champion’s workers save the Canton plant several years ago. The state shouldn’t give big businesses money to create 300 jobs, he says, if it could spend the same or less and help 30 small businesses create 10 each. “I’m a traditionalist who believes you should dance with the one who brought you,” he says.

Almost single-mindedly, however, he’s running on home-rule and allowing local governments to choose from “the full menu” of revenue options, including impact fees, transfer taxes and sales taxes, when faced with local needs. They shouldn’t have go begging to the state, he insists.

“People are saying, ‘We can’t function this way. Let’s address the needs first, then the revenues, but we need some serious talk about the tax code in this state,’” Smathers says. “The state and federal governments keep pushing programs down, but they don’t push the power down with them.”

It’s early in the campaign, and there are no sharp elbows flying just yetso far everyone “likes and respects” his opponents, though Dellinger turned up the heat a bit this week by issuing a long critique of Dalton’s senate record.

But for now, the emphasis is on raising citizens’ awareness of the race. Smathers is raising money by holding fundraisers with guitar-picker David Holt, while reminding his audiences that former Gov. Dan Mooreonce a lieutenant governor, tooalso hailed from Canton.

Dellinger, in between issuing white papers on subjects like senior citizens, has written a children’s book; both are availablefreeon his Web site. Dellinger held a fundraiser recently at Democratic headquarters in Raleigh. Besse’s scheduled one there next week.

And all four are intent, as Dalton is, on convincing the voters that, as important as the (many) other elections are in ’08, the lieutenant governor’s race is worth their attention. “I do think it has some opportunities for leadership,” he says.