The final debate before any election is always the most contentious, the most pointed, some would say the most fun.
Wednesday night's Charlotte mayoral debate was no exception. It was televised in prime time and featured just the top tier candidates running for mayor. And it came just days before the all- important September 12 primary.
To be clear, last night's debate was more than just a collection of political barbs. It was also a class on campaign strategy with a partisan twist.
The three main Democrats, Mayor Jennifer Roberts, Mayor Pro-Tem Vi Lyles and State Senator Joel Ford would debate each other.
Kenny Smith, the only Republican to qualify for the debate would, well, we'll get to that.
But since the Democrats started the show, we'll start with them.
As the incumbent, Jennifer Roberts needed to defend her record.
The challengers, Vi Lyles and Joel Ford needed to show they are connected to the average Charlottean. And score some political points against Roberts who went into the night as the presumed favorite.
Here's the first question asked by Jim Morrill of the Observer. "We're almost at the one year anniversary of the killing of Keith Lamont Scott. The protests that followed underlined some of the city's social problems. How do you think the city and its leaders have responded in addressing those challenges?"
Vi Lyles answered first. "Well, I was there when the protests started. I was there in Marshall Park and then I went to the Government Center where the national media converged on us."
There's the connection. Here's the barb. "I believe that we've got to work harder and move towards action," stated Lyles, "We haven’t had the leadership to help us do that. And that's why I'm running for mayor."
Joel Ford had a similar take. "One of the things, that motivating factors for me in seeking the office of mayor for the city of Charlotte was the Keith Lamont Scott shooting."
But his barb was a bit more specific. "The last thing that we can afford to do is to have the mayor call out the police chief and roll him under the bus." Ford then added, "What we need in this city is strong leadership."
It's an attack line Jennifer Roberts has heard a lot this campaign. So she fired back. "Well, I have to say that Joel Ford's characterization of my relationship with the police chief is about as fictional as his crime fighting plan." She then added the city is working to do more community policing.
Even on issues where all the candidates agreed there were pot shots. Especially between Roberts and Ford.
When asked if the civilian board which reviews complaints of police misconduct needed more authority and power, Lyles, Ford and Roberts all said yes.
Lyles added that she drafted a plan to give the Citizens Review Board subpoena power. A move made mute by a state law passed this year.
Ford said if he was mayor he could have stopped the legislature from doing that. Something, he said, Roberts didn't do. "What we need less of is political talk. We need for the mayor and the city council to actually lead, be responsive to the citizens of Charlotte so that we can heal this community and move forward together. Unfortunately, we cannot do that under this old, failed leadership."
Jennifer Roberts had had enough. "I think Joel Ford's baseless personal attacks show that his campaign is desperate. And I have to say the people of Charlotte expect that from Donald Trump. They don’t expect baseless personal attacks from the next mayor of Charlotte."
And on it went.
Asked if they would consider raising taxes to pay for more police, affordable housing, transportation projects or road improvements only Lyles said yes. Specifically for hiring or retaining police officers. Ford said categorically no. Roberts rejected the premise of the question saying you never know what unexpected things could happen.
There were no closing statements from the candidates. No final pitch to voters in a primary that is expected to be close. But that doesn’t mean the night was over.
Waiting in the wings was Kenny Smith. The only Republican to qualify for the debate. But with no sparring partner, debate is the wrong word to use. This was the political equivalent of practicing your tennis stroke with a ball machine.
But that doesn’t mean Smith was hitting lobs.
When asked if state lawmakers overreached when they passed HB 2, here's how Smith responded. "When we passed the ordinance with the bathrooms included that gave Raleigh the opportunity to come in and, some would say, overreach. And it was about the bathrooms. And the mayor and the mayor pro-tem had the votes to pass it without the bathrooms and they chose not to.
Kenny Smith is expected to easily win the Republican primary. As for Democrats Jennifer Roberts, Joel Ford and Vi Lyles, if no one gains 40 percent or more of the primary votes, the top two will face each other for a runoff election in October.