RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – U.S. Rep Ted Budd (R) called Russian President Vladimir Putin “evil” but also “very intelligent,” as he formally joined the race Monday for North Carolina’s open U.S. Senate seat.

He was in Raleigh to file paperwork with the NC State Board of Elections to appear on the ballot for the May 17 primary and discussed Russia’s attack on Ukraine.

Budd has the backing of former President Donald Trump and attended an event at Mar-a-Lago last week where Trump called Putin “pretty smart” as the invasion was beginning, according to a video of the event that went viral.

When asked if he agreed with that assessment, Budd said, “Well, you have to look at it two ways. One is good or bad. I would say Putin is evil. But, that doesn’t mean he’s not smart. He’s a very intelligent actor, although I would say he’s been quite erratic in this approach to the Ukraine. So, this is very different than the Putin we’ve seen over the past several decades.”

He said the United States needs to continue supporting Ukraine, short of sending in combat troops.

“It was very predictable what he would do. But, at the same time, Putin is evil. He’s an international thug. But, he is intelligent. And so, we have to treat him as such,” Budd said.

Budd is running in a highly contentious primary on the Republican side to face off against the Democrats’ presumed nominee former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley.

Ted Budd files to run in the US Senate race in Raleigh on February 28, 2022. Michael Hyland/CBS 17

Former Gov. Pat McCrory is also seeking the GOP nomination, as he and Budd lead the field in recent polling and fundraising.

He criticized Budd’s characterization of Putin as “intelligent.”

“An intelligent person doesn’t do these stupid, evil things,” he said Monday. “It’s unfathomable that a sitting member of Congress who wants to be a U.S. Senator would call Putin intelligent while bombs are being dropped on women and children.”

Former Rep. Mark Walker and combat veteran Marjorie Eastman are also among the higher-profile candidates in the Republican field.

“May God protect the Ghost of Kyiv and bring down the evil Russian regime. While I’m on it, the undertones of Putin praise is insane. The demented fool would destroy America in a heartbeat if given the chance,” Walker tweeted following the invasion.

Eastman called Putin a “bully.”

“Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Donetsk and Luhansk is illegal and threatens the peace, security, and territorial integrity of a sovereign nation. I strongly condemn Russia’s use of force and call on the leaders of the world’s democracies to impose the most severe sanctions possible against Russia,” she said in a statement.

Rep. Ted Budd, R-N.C., poses for a photo at an event in Mount Airy, N.C. on Sept. 25, 2021. (AP Photo/Bryan Anderson)

Budd declined to attend a debate this weekend for the Republican candidates that the conservative John Locke Foundation hosted and has not said if he’ll participate in one at all before the primary on May 17.

“I’ve always said, and I’ve been very consistent for months now that we’re going to wait until the filing period is closed and then we’ll have that discussion,” he said.

Candidates have until March 4 to file the paperwork necessary to appear on the ballot.

Early voting begins April 28, primary set for May 17

There’s been a great deal of uncertainty about how this year’s election would proceed as the General Assembly has faced lawsuits over how Republicans drew the electoral districts for Congress and the state legislature.

The state Supreme Court moved the primary from March to May, which also affected the strategies candidates employed as they aimed to build momentum in the weeks leading up to the primary, said Catawba College political analyst Dr. Michael Bitzer.

Former President Trump endorsed Budd last June, but public polling released by the John Locke Foundation last month found that half of Republican primary voters still hadn’t made up their minds about whom to support. Many were also unaware of Trump’s endorsement.

“Generally what campaigns tend to do is ramp up the final maybe two months before the primary, if indeed the primary in May is concrete, is firm,” said Bitzer.

Early in-person voting will begin April 28, giving candidates a matter of weeks to make their case to voters.

“This is North Carolina, we know things change, especially with an activist Supreme Court. So, we’ve been prepared to do what’s needed to win,” said Budd. “We’ve got to get beyond the primary. We’ve got to have someone who understands North Carolina but also someone who understands the needs of North Carolina.”