LENOIR Grassroots advocates such as Christine Steele Gates arent taking any chances with Tuesdays statewide vote on the constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage and civil unions in North Carolina.
Although polls show the referendum will pass, Gates says she spends 90 percent of my waking hours campaigning. Last week, that included spending every day of early voting in the Caldwell County Board of Elections parking lot.
She and others braving the summer-like heat were on a mission: to win support for the ballot measure among voters in Caldwell County, about 75 miles northwest of Charlotte.
Gates and other supporters say the amendment will ensure the preservation of traditional families. Passage also means, they say, that marriage is defined in the state constitution and not by activist judges or legislators.
If we dont win it, well probably never get it in the constitution, said Gates, 46, a married mom with a college-age daughter. The gay activists will win, and then well have Massachusetts, anything-goes here in the Bible Belt.
Its the rural regions where homemade pro-amendment signs share roadside space with mass-produced ones that are expected to carry the amendment to passage, according to recent polls. North Carolina is the only Southern state without a marriage amendment.
The base of support includes churches, GOP groups and boards of commissioners in several counties, including Caldwell, Catawba, Gaston, Union and Lincoln, which passed resolutions in favor of the amendment.
In rural areas, signs of support for the amendment are common, like down a stretch of N.C. 27 in Iron Station in Lincoln County. Anti-amendment signs are more dominate in urban areas, including several of Charlottes neighborhoods.
Amendment supporters say theyve seen their lead in the polls shrink, following the television advertising blitz by the states largest anti-amendment group, Protect All N.C. Families.
So the closing days of the campaign have been busy for both proponents and critics of the measure. Both sides spent the last week raising money for advertising. After evangelist Billy Graham endorsed the amendment last week, his Billy Graham Evangelical Association bought newspaper ads and hundreds of spots on local television stations to be aired this weekend.
Supporters like Gates, president of the Caldwell Tea Party, are going all out, too. Laid off three years ago, Gates uses Facebook and GOP websites, in addition to in-person campaigning.
Supporters working the board of election site occasionally escaped the sun last week by ducking underneath a small white tent in the parking lot.
David Laity, 49, Caldwell coordinator for Vote For Marriage N.C., the states largest pro-amendment group, is worried about the narrowing polls.
From what I hear on the polls, the (anti-amendment) advertisements are making a difference, he said.
Those ads from Protect All N.C. Families include unmarried women saying the amendment could strip them of domestic violence protections, or their children of health benefits. Vote For Marriage N.C. countered with a new television ad Thursday, refuting the domestic violence claim.
Still, both sides credit the anti-amendment commercials with narrowing the polls.
Once ahead by 27 points, the latest results released last week by Public Policy Polling show the measure still passing, but the lead is down to 14 points.
It showed that our strategy has worked, said Jeremy Kennedy, campaign manager for Protect All N.C. Families. Weve seen support for the amendment basically crumble. We are keeping our heads down, and we are continuing our ground game.
Kennedy said that on-the-ground effort has included more than 500,000 phone calls and tens-of-thousands of door-to-door visits made by 3,500 volunteers.
The anti-amendment group raised $2.2 million, Kennedy said. The pro-amendment Vote For Marriage N.C. raised nearly $1.2 million, according to the group.
Grass-roots action throughout the state has helped drive early voters to the polls in record numbers. It has also revealed generational and urban-rural divisions.
Turnout for early voting, which ended Saturday, was high in places like Mitchell and Alexander counties, which have large Republican majorities and where the amendment is expected to win easily. Early turnout was also high in Durham and Orange counties, heavily Democratic counties with a high concentration of younger voters, where it is expected to lose.
The state has seen such divisions before in political contests including the Jesse Helms and Harvey Gantt races in the 1990s for U.S. Senate and the 2008 presidential campaign between Barack Obama and John McCain.
The urban-rural divide is going to be very apparent, said Thomas Mills, a campaign consultant who is working with the opposition campaign. Youre going to see this generational divide, too.
Mills expects the amendment will lose in some of the counties Obama won, but not in northeastern counties with older African-American voters who will support the amendment.
The nation is watching
Tuesdays vote is drawing attention well beyond the state. A New York Times editorial last week, called Bigotry on the Ballot, urged North Carolinians to consider whether they really want to inflict this gratuitous bigotry on their fellow citizens and their children.
Members of Courage Campaign, with roots in California, traveled from around the country to North Carolina this weekend to support the anti-amendment cause, according to Adam Bink, director of online programs.
The anti-amendment side also got a boost from high-profile Democrats, including President Obama, Democratic Party chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius.
That outside involvement has energized amendment advocates, said Rachel Lee, communications director for Vote For Marriage N.C.
There are people outside of North Carolina who are trying to insert themselves into a debate thats really about the people of North Carolina, Lee said. (We wont) allow outside groups or individuals to tell us what marriage is.
Letting voters have the final say is the main motivation behind the ballot question, according to Mary Frances Forrester, wife of the late N.C. Sen. James Forrester of Gaston County, who pushed for years to get the constitutional referendum. Forrester died in October.
Her husband also worried that state law that bans gay marriage could be jeopardized by judges who are activists who are ruling by preference rather than principle, she said.
He said, I believe the people of North Carolina are conservative. He felt like the people needed a chance to vote on what a traditional marriage should be, Mary Frances Forrester said.
Intensity at forums
The multi-million dollar amendment effort has generated divisive moments, including charges from the pro-amendment side of campaign signs around the state disappearing, or being defaced.
At a nonpartisan Charlotte forum last week hosted by the Foundation for the Carolinas, president Michael Marsicano thanked panelists for their courage to speak, given the debates intensity.
Two amendment proponents at a separate Gaston College forum, which featured an even split of panelists from both sides, nervously joked with the audience about switching seats with them.
Not hesitating to speak at the college panel was Donnie Loftis, chairman of the all-Republican Gaston County Commission, which unanimously passed a resolution favoring the amendment.
Loftis predicts the measure will pass in Gaston by 60 percent. I have a defense of marriage act sign in my yard. People know where I stand on this issue, Loftis said. I believe marriage between one man and one woman can impact our society greater than anything else we can do.
As both sides advertise and speak out during the campaigns closing days, some say there needs to be a focus on what happens after Tuesday.
The proposed amendment has pitted some churches and neighbors against each other, said Robert Kellogg, chairman of the Gaston County Democratic Party and a critic of the amendment.
I think theres some healing that needs to take place, Kellogg said.
Reporters Tim Funk and Gavin Off contributed.