At this point four years ago, President Bush was so far ahead in the polls he pulled most of his campaign staff out of North Carolina.
John McCain and Barack Obama return this weekend to a state with a much different political landscape.
Polls show the race in North Carolina virtually tied less than three weeks before the election. McCain's rally in Concord this morning will be his second visit to the state this week. Sunday, Obama makes his fourth trip to North Carolina since late September with an appearance in Fayetteville.
Both campaigns are blitzing the airwaves with ads. Thousands of Republican mailers and phone calls try to link Obama with an “extreme leftist agenda.” Obama's ads cast him more as a friend of the middle class.All the activity underscores the fact that North Carolina, reliably red for 32 years, has become a true battleground.
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The economy is a big reason the race is tight. An Elon University poll this month found that twice as many North Carolinians blamed Republicans as Democrats for the sour economy.
“Republicans are basically sailing against a headwind with the economic situation, and the incumbent party is getting blamed for it,” says Ferrell Blount, a former state GOP chairman. “Hopefully by election time, voters will see around that.”
But another reason has to do with demographics.
The state grew by more than 800,000 between 2000 and 2006, and has since added thousands more from all over the country.
“It's pure mathematics,” says Paul Shumaker, a consultant to U.S. Sen. Richard Burr and other Republicans. “Those people who have lived in North Carolina all their lives tend to be self-described conservatives. People moving into North Carolina (are) more moderate … and they tend to be ticket-splitters.”
Population growth and aggressive registration drives have added more than 700,000 new voters this year alone. While both parties increased their numbers, the percentage of registered Republicans fell slightly relative to that of Democrats.
Carmine Scavo, a political scientist at East Carolina University, has seen newcomers drawn to Greenville for medical and other jobs. They're not like the region's more conservative Democrats who voted for Republicans such as the late Sen. Jesse Helms.
“Those people coming in (are) not the same type of ‘Jesse-crat',” he says. “They're coming in with very different concerns about health policy, the deficit, the war in Iraq … Their positions tend to line up with that more middle-of-the-road mainstream, a little right-to-center type of Democrats.”
Tom Jensen of Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning firm, traces part of Obama's showing to success attracting small-town voters. In 2004, he says, Bush won 57 percent of those voters. Polls among them now show Obama with a slight edge.
‘Solving people's problems'
According to Jensen, 7 percent of N.C. voters who supported Bush in 2004 are backing Obama, largely because of economic concerns.
Shumaker, the GOP consultant, says Republicans often don't address “kitchen table issues.”
“We still have folks who approach our campaigns like it's still the 1980s, and it's not,” he says. “We ran ideological campaigns. … (Democrats) are talking about solving people's problems and making a difference. … They've had a message that appeals beyond their party that allows them to steal away Republican votes as well.”
Obama has an aggressive turnout effort.
Officials say Democrats made up 64 percent of the nearly 114,000 people who cast a ballot on the first day of early voting Thursday. And African Americans, who comprise about 22 percent of the state's population, accounted for about 36 percent.
Obama has heavily outspent McCain in North Carolina.
In the first week of October, he spent $1.2 million on TV ads compared to McCain's $148,000, according to the Wisconsin Advertising Project.
Still, Republicans are optimistic.
“I'm not terribly worried,” says Blount. “I have a lot of faith in voters, and my guess is that when they make a final selection, they'll see somebody in Barack Obama who's going to raise their taxes. And that's absolutely the wrong thing to do in tough economic times.”