BOONE Five weeks before Election Day, the best place to get a snapshot of the presidential race in North Carolina might well be up here in the mountain towns of Watauga County.
Unlike the Republican-red counties surrounding it, Watauga has turned purple in its politics just like North Carolina, still one of nine battleground states in the 2012 contest between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Home to 17,000 students at Appalachian State University, rich retirees in Blowing Rock and church-going conservatives in hamlets such as Deep Gap and Meat Camp, we are a battleground county, said Republican Nathan Miller, chairman of the Watauga County Board of Commissioners.
Miller is also part of a local bipartisan chorus pressing the case of Watauga population: 51,333 as a bellwether for a changing North Carolina and maybe for the whole country.
The way Watauga goes, Miller predicted, is probably the way the United States will go. And thats a big deal.
In 2008, Watauga mirrored the state by going for Democrat Obama, with a big student turnout key in ending a string of victories in the county for GOP presidential candidates.
In 2010, Watauga went Republican, again reflecting the trend in North Carolina and nationally. With the help of the tea party, the local GOP took control of the board of commissioners by winning three previously Democratic seats.
And this year?
Miller is as confident Romney will prevail in Watauga as Boone Mayor Loretta Clawson, a Democrat, is sure Obama will win the county again.
But the two offer the same caveat: The vote in this county, about 110 miles northwest of Charlotte, will be close.
Thats also what most current polls say about the race in North Carolina, which Obama won in 2008 by only 14,077 votes his smallest state victory margin.
While Wataugas highest-profile Democrat and Republican pointed to signs of stepped-up campaign activity for Obama and Romney, they also acknowledged challenges.
Clawson, a retired state worker in her third term as mayor, said the Obama-mania of 2008 has faded some after nearly four years of recession and high unemployment.
(Obama) came into a very bad situation, and hes had to work very hard. I do feel like we have had (economic) growth all the time hes been in (office), she said.
But the problem is that were climbing out of a hole thats deeper than any of us imagined.
And Miller, a lawyer who won his first political office two years ago, said the Republican base in Watauga seems less excited about electing Romney some are put off by his Mormonism, others by his wealth than in defeating Obama.
I hate to say it, but its more we dont like Obama than we love Mitt Romney, he said. Ive heard some about his Mormon background . . . And that hes a rich guy. Its not like Barack Obama is poor, but he doesnt have Romney money.
Still, the battle goes on up here in the High Country.
Every day, College Democrats and College Republicans are registering new voters on the App State campus. The county board of elections has processed more than 4,000 registrations since Aug. 1, including 1,005 Democrats, 1,001 Republicans and 2,519 unaffiliated.
Every night, party volunteers are manning phone banks. And every week, the presidential campaigns are working to identify and energize voters the Obama campaign by opening a field office in downtown Boone last month, the Romney campaign by bringing Tagg Romney, the candidates oldest son, to town last week.
And with early in-person voting set to begin Oct. 18 absentee votes are already being cast in North Carolina the focus soon will shift to getting people to the polls.
The dynamic will definitely be turnout, Miller said.
Clawson agreed: It all boils down in this county to who gets out their vote. Were worker bees. Were grass-roots.
Newcomers diversify politics
In a few ways, Watauga is different from North Carolina as a whole.
In the state, African-Americans make up 22 percent of the population. In Watauga, they represent just 2 percent.
Hispanics? 3.5 percent.
Still, the county is changing socially and ideologically if not demographically.
That points to another Watauga difference: In May, it was one of eight counties in 100-county North Carolina to vote down Amendment One. The amendment, which passed statewide with 60-plus percent of the vote, reinforced the states ban on gay marriage.
Wataugas GOP-controlled board of commissioners passed a resolution endorsing the amendment, then spent two meetings listening to those who disagreed. The vote in the county was close: With more than 15,000 votes cast, the amendment lost by 244.
North Carolinas change from a red state to a purple one can be explained partly by all the newcomers. Similarly, App State and the lure of the Blue Ridge Mountains have meant an influx into Watauga of North Carolina students as well as those looking for a place to enjoy nature or the ambience of a college town.
Theyre turning Boone, the county seat, into a Democratic base. With 37 percent of the countys voters living within town limits, what some are calling a miniAsheville is making Watauga more competitive.
The Meat Camps and these other little towns surrounding Boone are not moving toward the Democratic Party, said Phil Ardoin, a professor of political science. Boone is increasing in size and is having a bigger influence on the county (vote).
All this change doesnt sit well with some old-timers.
Used to be you could drive through Boone without seeing two girls holding hands, cracked a truck driver from tiny Zionville who asked not to be identified.
This is my front yard
Backpack-wearing students walking down Boones main street West King will see a collection of Obama signs in the windows at Appalachian Antiques.
We Love Michelle, reads one.
Inside, where customers can buy an old 45 record of The Beatles Yellow Submarine, owner Jill Reeves wears an Obama-Biden button.
Four years ago, when she put up Obama signs, some people got huffy.
It was: how come I didnt also have a McCain sign? recalled Reeves, whos owned the store for eight years. And I said: Could I put an Obama sign in your front yard? They said, No! And I said, This is my front yard.
This year, the 66-year-old Reeves, a Missouri native who graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1968, said shes received lots of compliments about her signs and her button.
Yes, she knows some voters are still down on Obamas health care plan and blame him for the joblessness. But Reeves said the president has earned a second term, and she hopes Republicans in Congress will stop blocking his programs.
I trust him, and he has the same philosophy I do about helping people, she said of Obama. Sometimes its tough to get things done, especially when the other party is voting down everything you do.
Battleground state, battleground county and, judging from a recent weekday at App State, battleground campus.
Obama and Romney messages were written in chalk on sidewalks. Volunteers and campaign staffers had set up dueling tables on the Sanford Mall. And students walking to class slowed down long enough to answer the question: Are you registered to vote at your current address?
David Milam, 23, a post-graduate student working in a campus ministry, approached the College Republicans table.
He registered unaffiliated I dont want to pick a side but said Republican Romney will probably get his vote.
I dont think the guy in office is getting it done, said Milam, from Forest City. Jobs are scarce, and theres a lot of national debt.
Over by the library, Ian OKeefe, a student and local Democratic Party staffer in charge of the youth campaign, didnt wait for students to come to him.
Awesome, awesome, he said every time students told him they were already registered.
Whenever any said they werent, OKeefe was ready with a clipboard, a form and a pen.
Kory Madden, 21, of Charlotte, stopped, re-juggled his books on Yeats and Cicero, then signed up as unaffiliated.
He had hoped to cast a ballot in November for U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, the Libertarian who lost the GOP nomination to Romney.
His second choice?
I know its probably not Romney, said Madden. I cant see him running the country.
So Obama? Yeah. Hes better than Romney.
Young voters helped Obama carry North Carolina in 2008 he was the choice of 72 percent of those 18-29 years old.
In the three voting sites on the App State campus, Obama beat Sen. John McCain 4,614 votes to 2,484.
The president may need to rack up those kinds of numbers again to re-win the county and the state.
Will it happen?
Im seeing a lot of interest and a lot of passion on campus more by Democrats than by Republicans, said App States Ardoin, who teaches classes in government and the presidency. Is it at the level I saw it in 2008? No, its not. In 2008, it was amazing . . . The College Democrats had an Obama bus take students (to vote early). It was going back and forth from 9 oclock in the morning until 4 oclock in the afternoon.
Ardoin and others said it isnt quite like 2008 in another way: College Republicans learned their lesson and are more active this year.
They had 150 people ar their first meeting in 2012. And during the Republican National Convention, they organized a party to watch U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, Romneys running mate and a popular figure with young conservatives, give his acceptance speech.
Kelsey Lauren Crum, president of the GOP campus group, predicted that the vote totals will be closer this time.
People are realizing that, when they graduate, their chances of getting a job are significantly less, said Crum, 24, who grew up in Boone. Romney offers new hope for a strong economy.
College Democrats president Lia Poteet of Charlotte said her group is working with the countys Obama campaign to promote early voting.
Her club also will reach out to key Obama voting groups with a month of on-campus forums on everything from Pell grants to LGBT issues to Womens Week.
While 2008 was about something new that gave young people hope, said Poteet, 21, this year is about explaining things.
These are the (Obama) policies that are in your best interest, she said she tells students. There have been lots of months of job growth. And things are getting better.
Red Blowing Rock, county
The big Obama campaign event in Watauga next month will be a $1,000-per-person Obama fundraiser featuring James Taylor. Hell sing at the Westglow Resort and Spa in Blowing Rock.
That cost-of-admission is a hint of how expensive things are in Blowing Rock, a resort town of high altitudes (3,579 feet) and even higher price tags for summer homes (Just $750,000!!! read an ad for one at Blowing Rock Realty).
But Republicans, not Democrats, appear to be the dominant group among the 1,100 or so voters in this town, which Blowing Rock Mayor J.B. Lawrence, a Republican, calls center-right.
The recession hit hardest here, in the second-home market that has long been Blowing Rocks calling card especially to Floridians looking to leave for some cooler climes in the summertime.
Many of these part-time residents are like William Pearson, who retreats to Blowing Rock in May from Fort Myers, Fla. Pausing during a stroll down Main Street, with its ice cream parlors and tiny boutiques, the retired Pearson said hell probably vote a straight Republican ticket.
Hes not wild about Romney if he would keep his mouth shut but said Obama has been a do-nothing president.
Two affluent women in their 60s also stopped to talk after some Main Street shopping.
Im most definitely for Romney, said one of the women, who splits her time between Charlotte and Blowing Rock and declined to be named. I like keeping my own money in my pocket.
Also part of the GOP base in Watauga: voters who live in the county, as Miller called the rural areas and tiny towns east and west of Boone.
That includes Foscoe, where Chris Calloway, 49, grew up. He took a break from mowing the lawn at his church Foscoe Christian.
I probably disagree with (Obama) on more things than Mr. Romney, said Calloway.
The Republican candidates Mormonism doesnt bother him, and if creating jobs is the main issue this year, he figures Romneys years as a CEO would be a plus.
Thats his background, said Calloway.
Asked how he thinks Watauga County will vote Obama or Romney Calloway echoed most everybody else in this bellwether county:
I think its going to be close.