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N.C. in position to be big player

For N.C. voters who enjoyed a taste of a real presidential campaign during the primary, Barack Obama may offer a second helping.

Obama's clinching of the Democratic presidential nomination raises the possibility that the two major parties will fight over North Carolina, a reliably Republican state that Democrats have contested only once in the past seven elections.

In the era of color-coded television maps, Obama turns the traditionally red state at least to pink, according to strategists from both parties.

The Tarheel State offers a prize of 15 electoral votes. Only eight states deliver more, and Obama has said he wants to expand the map of competitive states.

Neighboring South Carolina, with eight electoral votes, remains a more solid Republican bet.

If Obama chooses to fight in North Carolina, the state could see a repeat of the primary phenomenon: an invasion of staff from both campaigns, TV advertising and a flurry of candidate visits. More importantly to the parties, those national resources could aid their candidates for the U.S. Senate and state offices.

Longtime GOP strategist Carter Wrenn said as recently as a month ago he thought there was no way Democrats could make North Carolina a battleground.

“I've got to confess at getting a little itchy,” said Wrenn, a veteran of statewide campaigns for former U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms and former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot.

That's because Democrats won three special elections since March in traditionally Republican districts in Illinois, Louisiana and Mississippi. Wrenn said those elections, President Bush's continued low approval ratings and a sagging economy could suggest a Democratic surge like that which hit Republicans in 2006.

“Now and then you see these tidal waves,” Wrenn said. “We saw one two years ago and we may be seeing another one. And if that's the case … we could be in play.”

Not first in fight

Harrison Hickman, a Democratic pollster and N.C. native who helped run Al Gore's 2000 campaign, said the campaigns will first target the obvious battleground states such as Florida, Iowa, Ohio and Michigan.

“North Carolina would be contested,” Hickman said, “but it would not be in that top tier of states.”

Obama could turn to second-tier battleground states like North Carolina and Virginia if he needs an extra cushion of electoral votes. He also may look for other wins if an expected battleground unexpectedly shifts – for example, if presumed Republican nominee John McCain picks a running mate from that state.

Although Democrats historically have dominated elections for state offices in North Carolina, such as governor and the General Assembly, Republicans usually carry the day in federal races – the presidency and U.S. Senate.

Democrats last contested a presidential race in North Carolina in 1992, when George Bush edged Bill Clinton. No Democrat has won the state since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Two recent polls, admittedly early, show McCain ahead of Obama by 3 to 5 percentage points, spreads within or close to the margin of error.

Obama starts with unprecedented assets for a Democratic nominee in North Carolina, on top of a prevailing dissatisfaction with a Republican White House. More than one-fifth of the state's registered voters are black, and during the primary, Obama won more than 90 percent of the black vote, according to exit polls.

His campaign opened 36 offices across the state and organized thousands of volunteers. The fervor of Obama's race against Sen. Hillary Clinton helped draw nearly 200,000 newly registered Democratic and unaffiliated voters.

One figure that gives Democrats hope: Nearly 1.6 million people voted in last month's Democratic primary. That's more than voted for the Democratic ticket in 2004 in a general election that usually sees substantially higher turnout.

Democratic strategist Gary Pearce said Obama could bring tens of thousands of new voters to the polls in North Carolina. Maybe not enough for him to carry the state, but enough to benefit Democrats running for other offices.

Still uphill

Obama faces a political headwind from a traditionally conservative state with an extensive military community who are likely to lean toward McCain, the former Navy pilot and POW.

Another factor could be race.

Race factored into North Carolina's last experience with a black candidate, former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt's two losses to Helms in the 1990s. In last month's Democratic primary, white voters picked Clinton by a nearly 2-to-1 margin over Obama, an African American with an ethnic name.

“You hate to say it, but that's still a big barrier for Obama in North Carolina,” said Pearce, a veteran consultant whose clients included former Gov. Jim Hunt and former U.S. Sen. John Edwards.

Obama has to mend a split party. While 70 percent of his N.C. supporters in the primary said they would vote for Clinton if she were the nominee, only 45 percent of Clinton's supporters said they would line up behind Obama, exit polls showed.

The influx of Northeasterners and Midwesterners to North Carolina in recent years has made the state more Republican but also more moderate. McCain's maverick image likely will help him with that growing suburban vote.