ROXBORO, N.C. (AP) — One candidate is an Ivy League-educated attorney who over 25 years amassed allies as he climbed North Carolina's Democratic ladder. The other is a former furniture factory worker with a history of blunt commentary who plowed into Republican politics four years ago after a viral video on gun rights vaulted him to prominence.

While taking dramatically different paths, Attorney General Josh Stein and Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson have emerged as front-runners for their parties' nominations for governor next month in the race to succeed term-limited Democrat Roy Cooper in the nation's ninth-largest state.

Each faces credible rivals, including two Republicans seeking to defeat Robinson using their own personal wealth to convince GOP voters that he's too controversial to lead the state. But Robinson and Stein have led their fields in fundraising and won potentially pivotal support from Donald Trump and Cooper for their respective candidacies.

As early in-person voting for the March 5 primaries began Thursday, national party groups were already gearing up for an expensive and heated general election campaign, regardless of who advances.

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein gives a campaign speech outside the student union at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, N.C., Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024. Stein spoke at a kickoff of his gubernatorial campaign's "Students for Stein" movement. With a large fundraising advantage and support from outgoing Gov. Roy Cooper, Stein appears to be the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, which will be decided in the March 5 primary. (AP Photo/Gary D. Robertson)

“People are definitely considering it the most important competitive (gubernatorial) race in 2024,” said Mac McCorkle, a Duke University public policy professor who advised two of Cooper’s predecessors.

Democrats aim to maintain and even build on their otherwise limited success in the South atop North Carolina government, where they have occupied the executive mansion for all but four of the last 31 years, including Cooper's tenure since 2017. Republicans control the legislature and the appellate courts. A GOP gubernatorial victory would essentially neuter the veto power that Cooper has used a record number of times, with mixed outcomes.

What both front-runners have in common is their potential to make history. Stein is Jewish and Robinson is Black, and North Carolina has never elected a governor from either demographic.

Stein, the son of a prominent civil rights lawyer, grew up in Chapel Hill and went to Dartmouth and Harvard. He managed John Edwards’ winning 1998 U.S. Senate campaign and worked in the 2000s as Cooper’s consumer protection chief while Cooper was attorney general. Stein served in the state Senate before the first of two narrow AG election victories in 2016.

While highlighting legal efforts by his office to protect citizens from polluters, predatory student loans and high electric bills, Stein is sticking closely to a Democratic platform also advanced by Cooper — though he is quick to assert his independence.

“We are different people. We have different personalities. And I’m running my own campaign,” Stein said after a recent rally with over 150 people at the University of North Carolina’s flagship campus in Chapel Hill. “I want to fight for the people of North Carolina as their governor so that we have good schools, safe communities, a growing economy that works for everybody and where their fundamental rights are respected.”

In contrast, Robinson tells a life story of childhood poverty in Greensboro, losing jobs that he blames NAFTA for eliminating, and personal bankruptcy. His 4-minute speech to the Greensboro City Council defending gun rights and lamenting the “demonizing” of police officers went viral — and led him to a National Rifle Association board position. Victory in a crowded GOP field in March 2020 in his first bid for elected office preceded a general election win that fall.

“The call has gone out to serve, and I have answered the call to serve,” the now-lieutenant governor told a standing-room-only crowd of 200 people on a recent Friday night at a bowling, roller skating and entertainment complex near Roxboro, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) northwest of Raleigh. “It’s time for us to elect a crop of politicians that do not want to be politicians. They want to be servants of the people.”

Robinson presents himself as a socially conservative change agent who will bring investment to rural areas, make education leaders accountable and teach students the basics.

“He’s attractive to us because we feel like he’s one of us. He’s the common man,” supporter Doug Wingate, 73, a retired general contractor, said after the Roxboro event. “And he’s passionate about the things that we’re passionate about.”

But GOP primary rivals State Treasurer Dale Folwell and trial attorney Bill Graham question whether Robinson can win a general election following harsh comments he’s made in office or earlier on social media.

Robinson has criticized efforts to teach LGBTQ+ issues in sex education, with comments in 2021 associating gay and transgender people with “filth." That led to calls for his resignation, but he defended his words, saying he was referring to sexually explicit books, not people.

In other attention-grabbing comments, Robinson has said he ultimately prefers a complete ban on abortion and told a church audience that Christians are “called to be led by men.”

Speaking generally about Robinson, Graham — who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2008 — said that people “see the problem with having him at the top of the ticket and what a disaster it would be for the Republican Party."

Folwell, his other rival, said Robinson is ill-prepared to become governor and calls him "history’s latest example of someone who’s trying to rise to power by spewing hate.”

Graham, who has committed to spending $5 million of his personal funds in the race, has run television ads that flag a 2018 Robinson social media post discussing Jews and the Holocaust as evidence that he’s not suitable to serve as governor and doesn't support Israel.

Robinson's post read, "This foolishness about Hitler disarming MILLIONS of Jews and then marching them off to concentration camps is a bunch of hogwash.” Robinson’s campaign said he’s never questioned the Holocaust, and that the full post referred to how the pre-Nazi government in Germany disarmed Jews, not Hitler.

Robinson also points out that he visited Israel after the October attack by Hamas.

“When Israel was attacked, not only did I stand with Israel, I stood in Israel with the Israelis,” he said at the rally near Roxboro.

Stein mentioned Robinson prominently in his stump speech outside UNC-Chapel Hill’s student union, warning students that “right-wing politicians” are ”taking a sledgehammer” to the state’s foundation.

A Democratic victory would offset the slim veto-proof majorities the GOP currently holds in the General Assembly, which have given them several narrow wins during Cooper's tenure. They overrode his vetoes in 2023 on legislation banning most abortions after 12 weeks of pregnancy, prohibiting gender-affirming medical treatments for youth and expanding taxpayer-funded scholarships for private schools.

Stein is “going to be the stopgap that is able to stop the hurting and stop the bad effects of the Republican legislature, granted that we can break the supermajority,” said Tyler Smith, a student at the UNC rally.

Stein's chief Democratic rival is former state Supreme Court Associate Justice Mike Morgan, whose campaign had just $32,000 in cash as 2024 began, compared to over $11 million for Stein. Like Robinson, Morgan would be the state's first Black governor.

In an interview, Morgan criticized Stein for “hiding behind canned videos and orchestrated press conferences” and said Cooper's endorsement of Stein in the primary violated the neutrality expected of party leaders.

“This is not a matter of having the proverbial baton being passed to one’s successor,” Morgan said. “The people’s voices need to be heard in this."