Race has sprung up in as in issue in North Carolina governor’s race during the last couple of weeks, with a pair of ads sparking a dust-up in the campaign for retiring Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue’s seat.

On Thursday, Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton’s (D) campaign released on online video featuring African Americans saying that Republican nominee Pat McCrory just doesn’t understand the issues that are important to them.

These accusations are about as direct as any you will see in a campaign video. They come on the heels of a TV ad the McCrory campaign launched a week ago, featuring a former Democratic sheriff who chalked up his 2010 primary loss to the black community voting along racial lines.“Pat McCrory just doesn't understand the African-American experience in North Carolina,” says one man at the beginning of the spot. “Pat McCrory doesn’t need to be governor. He needs a history lesson,” concludes another man at the end of the 60-second video.

In McCrory’s ad, former Wilson County sheriff Wayne Gay says: “Once a sheriff, always a sheriff. Once a Democrat, always a Democrat. Never voted any other way. ‘Till now. North Carolina’s a mess. It’s not getting better. Our only hope is Pat McCrory.”

A black candidate defeated Gay, who is white, by a wide margin in the 2010 Democratic primary, and the Charlotte Observer reports that Gay told a TV reporter “the black community realized they had an opportunity to elect a black sheriff, and I think they took advantage of it. Ninety-eight percent of them voted based on race.”

McCrory’s ad prompted a harsh response from state Sen. Floyd McKissick (D), the chairman of the state legislative black caucus. "This ad, with this script, featuring this man was no accident. He triggers a racial cue that has no place in this campaign," McKissick wrote in a letter to McCrory.

He added: “Running an ad in which Gay says, 'Our only hope is Pat McCrory' begs the question of who is 'our'?

It didn’t end there. As the Charlotte Observer notes in a roundup of the entire episode, Dalton’s campaign issued a statement from Melvin “Skip” Alston, the former president of the state NAACP, who said: “Race-baiting disguised as a political vision cannot be tolerated.” Both Alston and McKissick are Dalton supporters.

McCrory’s campaign has defended its spot and describes the Dalton video as a desperation play.

“This video they released is absolutely way over the top and desperate,” McCrory spokesman Brian Nick told The Fix.

The producer of McCrory’s ads is Fred Davis, a well-known campaign ad maker who was made some head-turning spots over the years, including Christine O’Donnell’s “I’m Not a Witch” spot in 2010 and Carly Fiorina’s “Demon Sheep” ad that same year. Davis came under criticism earlier this year when a New York Times report linked him to a plan to produce ads tying President Obama to his controversial former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., whose discussion of race made him the subject of scrutiny during the 2008 campaign.

The plan the Times reported on this year did not ultimately go though. Dalton’s campaign has made a point of noting Davis’s ties to the McCrory campaign.

Polling shows that McCrory holds a comfortable lead over Dalton, and is running ahead of Mitt Romney in the state. The former Charlotte mayor has also outpaced Dalton when it comes to fundraising. The last week hasn’t changed North Carolina’s status as the GOP’s best pickup opportunity this cycle, but it has become more heated. 

And now, without further ado, to the Line!

(A reminder that the races below are ordered according to likelihood that they will change parties, with No. 1 being the most likely.)

5. West Virginia (Democratic-controlled): Republicans are repeating an attack pattern they used against Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) in 2011 and now-Sen. Joe Manchin (D) in 2010: Link the Democrat to Obama. Last year, the Republican Governors Association waited until the end of the campaign before blanketing the airwaves with ads tying Tomblin to the president, who is very unpopular in the state. This time around, Republican nominee Bill Maloney and the RGA have already begun with the familiar theme. Democrats know how to weather this attack. That’s an important card in their deck. (Previous ranking: 5)

4. Washington (D): After most polls early in the race showed state Attorney General Rob McKenna (R) leading former congressman Jay Inslee (D), every poll over the last two months has shown Inslee slightly ahead. The most recent is an Elway Poll released last week that showed Inslee at 44 percent and McKenna at 41 percent. We still consider this a toss-up, but while it started the cycle as a great GOP pickup opportunity, it now appears slightly less so. (Previous ranking: 4).

3. New Hampshire (D): Both an NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll and a Democratic survey conducted for the state party by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner show attorney Ovide Lamontagne (R) and former state Senate majority leader Maggie Hassan running about even. But given the improvement in the macroscopic climate for Democrats during the past month and Obama’s lead in the state, we’re moving this race down to No. 3. Hassan also has the backing of Bill Clinton, whose stock has never been higher. Clinton will be in New Hampshire for Obama on Wednesday. No word yet on whether he' ll stump with Hassan. (Previous ranking: 2)

 2. Montana (D): We finally got our first non-automated poll in this race, but it didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. A Mason-Dixon poll released last week showed state Attorney General Steve Bullock (D) at 44 percent and former congressman Rick Hill (R) at 43 percent. We’re moving this race up to No. 2 because of the atmospherics in a red state, but Bullock continues to have a better image than Hill, which makes this effectively a tie ballgame. (Previous ranking: 3)

1. North Carolina (D): McCrory leads Dalton 52 percent to 39 percent in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll, reinforcing his control over this race, which is still the best Republican pickup opportunity this cycle. McCrory was outspent by Perdue in 2008, but kept the race within 4 points. This cycle, an early start has helped him dwarf Dalton’s fundraising. (Previous ranking: 1)