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On Second Thought, Cunningham Sees Winnable Race In N.C.

At a time when some Democrats look ahead nervously to 2010, Cal Cunningham is diving right in.

The North Carolina Democrat had ruled out challenging incumbent Richard Burr next fall, but changed his mind this week and entered a race national Democrats feel could be one of their top pickup opportunities. In an interview with RCP Tuesday, Cunningham acknowledged Democratic setbacks this fall, but said the story was different in the Tar Heel State.

"We saw what happened in Virginia. We saw the results in New Jersey. But did you see our results in Charlotte?" he asked. "We elected a new, young, African-American, Democratic mayor for the first time in over 20 years. ... We won a number of the key municipal races, Democrats did, here in North Carolina. We think that there is a lot of good stuff happening."

Those results, combined with the reception he received as he toured the state in his exploratory phase, that led Cunningham to reconsider his earlier decision not to run.

"It's really not in my nature to sit on the sidelines when the challenges we're facing are as serious as they are," Cunningham said, citing the economic challenges nationally and in North Carolina, as well as the continued conflicts overseas involving many in the state. And Burr, elected to the Senate in 2004 after five terms in the House, has no significant accomplishments to show for his time in Washington, he argued.

"He hasn't really been doing his part to move us forward," he said. "To the contrary, he's voted down the party line to put us in the ditch, drive the country into the ditch. So I know we can do better."

Cunningham, a former state senator and a veteran of the Iraq war, is the latest Democrat to enter the race, joining Secretary of State Elaine Marshall among others. His decision to enter the race after initially turning it down emboldened Washington Democrats, who see Burr as vulnerable but were skeptical of Marshall's chances. Cunningham himself has some catching up to do now, particularly on the fundraising front. But he says he's been encouraged by the early support.

"We will work hard. We will have the resources to communicate with voters. And I think we've got a really good shot," he said.

The environment is shifting against Democrats nationally, but Cunningham argues that the state's changing demographics make this a favorable environment for the party. Though he praises the direction President Obama has taken, however, he says he plans to run a "North Carolina campaign."

"I'm going to have differences of opinion with the administration. And I'll have differences of opinion obviously with the way Republicans have conducted themselves," he said. "I look forward to working with [Obama] on many issues, both here and in Washington. But also from time to time making sure that we hold him and the administration accountable to make sure that North Carolina's voice is being heard."

Cunningham emphasized his military service in announcing his campaign, and will likely continue to do so in a state with a sizable population in the armed services. He said his experience in Iraq at "the peak of the surge" there leads him to support Obama's recent decision to send an additional 30,000 troops into Afghanistan.

"I know firsthand that it's going to take more boots on the ground for us to regain the initiative, break the back of the insurgency, and establish the security in Afghanistan that's going to really come back and protect our homeland," he said. "Let me also say, though, when he gives the order he just gave, it's North Carolinians that are going to carry it out. ... So I'm going to hold the administration accountable for success in the policy that the president just proposed."

Asked about criticism of the President by former Vice President Dick Cheney, who claimed Obama showed weakness in "dithering" on a decision, Cunningham did not mince words.

"I spent 900 days, since March of 2003, as a reservist on active duty as a result of the decisions the Bush administration made in Iraq, at a great cost to my family," he said. "So I don't give the former Vice President a whole lot of credibility on the issues. If I'm not mistaken, he exercised more than a few deferments of his national service."