CHARLOTTE Republicans were so certain of carrying the Tar Heel State last time, that U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina famously boasted: “I’ll beat Michael Phelps in swimming before Barack Obama wins North Carolina.”
As Obama accepts the nomination Thursday night in a state that he improbably carried four years ago, Republicans are once again certain that the state will go red. U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, the state’s ranking Republican, doesn’t even think North Carolina should be considered a presidential battleground.
Democrats acknowledge that carrying the state again for Obama will be an uphill task, given North Carolina’s high unemployment rate.
But even so, North Carolina has remained among the 10 most competitive states in the country despite a $50 million television advertising barrage laid down by the campaigns and their allies through the summer.
Three independent polls released this week show the race in North Carolina is within the margin of sampling error – ranging from a dead heat to a Romney lead of four points.
Both campaigns say they expect the race to remain tight in the coming weeks.
With polls suggesting that only 6 percent of North Carolina voters are undecided, the Obama campaign appears to have a narrow path to victory in the state: They must persuade a sliver of undecided voters to back Obama, and they must turn out their base.
Obama faces a number of challenges:
The loss of white voters. Obama won 35 percent of North Carolina’s white vote in 2008, far better than the 27 percent that Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry won in 2004. An Elon University Poll released Monday reported Obama with 32 percent of likely Tar Heel voters, short of what he needs.
Less support from young voters. A major reason why his white support has dropped off is because he is not doing as well as he did four years ago among young voters. In 2008, Obama had a 48-point lead over McCain among voters ages 18 to 30. But, according to the Elon Poll, that lead has dropped to 29 points over Romney this year.
Less excitement. While Obama had the edge on intensity in 2008, it is Romney supporters that seem to have it now. The Elon Poll found that 51 percent of Romney supporters said they were “very excited” about the election, while 47 percent of Obama backers said they were “very excited.”
Democrats don’t see any of these challenges as insurmountable. Despite a 2-1 advantage in the advertising wars since June, Romney and his allies have been unable to knock out Obama in North Carolina. The race has essentially been frozen in place all summer.
Democratic strategist Thomas Mills said the continued Romney/Republican money edge will likely have diminishing effect over the next two months as weary voters tune out the advertising.
The Democrats also believe they will have a stronger ground game. The Obama campaign has 47 offices around the state – more than twice as many as the Republicans. Just as they did in Denver four years ago, they are using the Charlotte convention as an organizing tool to bring more volunteers into the campaign – although moving Obama’s acceptance speech from Bank of America Stadium due to weather concerns may dampen that effort.
“They have the spending advantage over us, but I think we have the infrastructure advantage,” said Patrick Gaspard, executive director of the Democratic National Committee. “We have knocked on thousands of doors on the state. They don’t have the deep field structure that we have or that George Bush had when he ran in 2004.”
Just having the convention in Charlotte, Democrats say, provides the ultimate Democratic pep rally in the middle of the state.
Republicans say the enthusiasm gap among Democrats is the result of a sour economy, and the difficulty that many young people have had in finding jobs.
A survey released this week by the conservative group Generation Opportunity found that 79 percent of millennials (ages 18 to 29) in North Carolina believe lack of job opportunities are shrinking the middle class.
Democrats concede that enthusiasm is down over the historic 2008 election. But they also note that four years ago, the North Carolina Democrats had just come through a high-profile primary between Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton. This time, it is the Republicans who have had a series of presidential primaries that have whetted their interest.
“The enthusiasm level, I’m not worried about that much,” said state Sen. Dan Blue, a former state House speaker and a veteran of numerous presidential campaigns. “The campaign has just kicked off. Traditionally, campaigns don’t start until after Labor Day.”
Durham Mayor Bill Bell said that now that colleges are back in session, he expects renewed efforts to organize young people.
The Democrats also think they can pick up support elsewhere. The ticket is doing poorly among older white voters.
But Democratic Rep. David Price said the Rep. Paul Ryan’s plan to sharply change Medicare – by shifting to a voucher-like plan for those under 55 – provides an opening to cut into the GOP edge there.
He said the Republican’s sharp views on social conservatism could also allow Democrats to make inroads among independents and moderate Republicans.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson on Wednesday, speaking at a delegation breakfast, also urged that the 510,000 unregistered blacks in North Carolina become registered.
Still, analyst and Tar Heel native David Gergen suggests that North Carolina should be moved from toss-up to leaning Republican.
Gergen said that North Carolina, like Virginia, is changing, but has not “changed enough for Barack Obama this time out.”
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