Like the grand finale of a long-running show, most of the major players in this year’s high-profile political drama are converging on North Carolina in this final week of the campaign.
The finale includes guest stars – namely the president and vice president of the United States – as well as celebrity cameos.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton visits the state on Thursday. That same day Republican Donald Trump will hold a rally at the Cabarrus Arena and Events Center – his second at the venue – and that night hold another rally in Selma, in Johnston County.
Clinton’s running mate, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, rallied supporters Monday in eastern North Carolina.
And President Barack Obama makes two visits to the state: Wednesday in Chapel Hill and Friday in Charlotte and Fayetteville. Vice President Joe Biden, meanwhile, travels to Charlotte Tuesday.
And that’s just this week.
In a presidential election where the plot seems to change weekly, North Carolina has become a consistent and key battleground.
“Every cycle there is one super battleground state – and in 2016 that state is North Carolina,” NBC News analyst Chuck Todd said last week. “North Carolina is "essential in almost any path to the White House for Donald Trump.”
It wasn’t always like this.
Presidential candidates might make occasional visits. Democrats Bill Clinton and Al Gore led a 14-bus caravan through the state in 1992. But most of the time it was an afterthought in presidential campaigns.
“This state was not a swing state until President Obama forced it into the swing state category in 2008,” said Ferrel Guillory, a long-time analyst of N.C. politics at the University of North Carolina.
“Certainly in my experience nothing like (this week) has happened in this state with the campaign presence of the major principals … and their major surrogates. And it has darn near overwhelmed the state elections.”
And rarely do state races have the potential consequences of this year’s.
The U.S. Senate race between Republican incumbent Richard Burr and Democrat Deborah Ross could be instrumental in determining which party controls the Senate and the confirmation process for appointments including Supreme Court justices.
The governor’s race, between GOP Gov. Pat McCrory and Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper, could decide the direction of the state. It’s one of most watched and most expensive in the country.
And legislative races could reaffirm or curtail Republicans’ grip on the General Assembly.
Al Hunt, a columnist for Bloomberg View and a veteran political journalist, this week called North Carolina “the real bellwether state.” He wrote that first lady Michelle Obama, campaigning in Winston-Salem with Clinton, said the state is ground zero in this election.
“That’s routine rhetoric; it also may be true,” Hunt wrote. “In the maze of color-coded maps and exit polls on Election night, North Carolina will send a resounding message. The state … is a must-win for Donald Trump. If Clinton wins, she’s probably off to a night that will resemble Obama’s 2008 victory.”
Along with the candidates, the state will see a parade of surrogates.
Actress Lena Dunham was in the Triangle Monday and actor Will Ferrell hit the area Saturday for Clinton. President Bill Clinton rallied supporters in Charlotte Sunday. Democratic U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders will stop in North Carolina as part of a final coast-to-coast swing.
Trump’s Thursday event is set for 4 p.m. at the Cabarrus Arena on N.C. 49. Members of the public can register for up to two tickets at www.donaldjtrump.com/schedule/register/concord-nc1/.
Trump’s return will be his second visit in just over a week.
Last Thursday, he gave a policy speech before an invitation-only crowd at Spirit Square in uptown Charlotte and then spoke to supporters in Kinston, a town in eastern North Carolina. He also recently staged a rally in Fletcher, a mountain town near Asheville.
Hillary Clinton held a campaign rally Oct. 23 at UNC Charlotte.
The location of Obama’s Charlotte event hasn’t been announced. But the public can sign up at http://hrc.io/2ec82Em.
Poll have shown Clinton with a lead over Trump, though the latest polling data doesn’t reflect the aftermath of news Friday that the FBI is investigating more emails related to Clinton’s private email server.
The Real Clear Politics average of statewide polling shows Clinton with a 3-point edge over Trump among likely voters: 47.1 percent of voters in the state said they support Clinton to 44.1 percent for Trump.