Obama sends N.C. message

Signaling that North Carolina will be a contested state in the fall election, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama campaigned here Monday, calling for new steps to turn around the nation's troubled economy.

Obama proposed another stimulus package to help revive the economy, a new effort to help people threatened with home foreclosure and tax relief for the middle class.

The Illinois senator also sought to draw sharp distinctions between his economic programs and those of his Republican opponent, John McCain, seeking to tightly bind McCain to President Bush.

“His economic plan amounts to a full-throated endorsement of George Bush's policies,” Obama told more than 500 people at an invitation-only program at the State Fairgrounds.

Obama used Raleigh as a jumping-off point for a two-and-a-half week national swing in battleground states, where he will emphasize the country's economic woes, from record gas prices to rising unemployment to the mortgage crisis.

That he would begin his cross-country jaunt in North Carolina – where a month ago he won a crucial Democratic primary fight over Sen. Hillary Clinton – is virtually unheard of in modern state politics.

North Carolina has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1976, and the state has not been seriously contested since 1992. But Obama appears to be gambling that he can redraw the electoral map to include such upper tier Southern states as North Carolina and Virginia.

“This is not a diversion,” said Tad Devine, a leading Democratic presidential strategist for such candidates as John Kerry and Al Gore. “I think they want to look seriously whether this coalition they can build in places like North Carolina is real.”

Devine said the Obama campaign believes that an increased turnout among African Americans, young people, and a strong showing among professionals has the potential to shift North Carolina into the Democratic fold. Even if Obama falls short, Devine said, the campaign would force McCain to expend resources in North Carolina, stretching him financially.

“You are going to see a lot of him (Obama),” Devine said.

Obama was introduced by Democratic Gov. Mike Easley, who had campaigned for Clinton. He exchanged a fist bump with Obama on stage.

“I know I'm late, but I am on the train,” said Easley, who initially was greeted with scattered boos that were then drowned out by broad cheers. “I'd rather be a bum on the boxcar of the Obama train than at the front of the bus with John McCain.”

Also in the crowd at the Exposition Center were Elizabeth and John Edwards, the former North Carolina senator and two-time presidential candidate who endorsed Obama last month. The audience included Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin and former Colorado Gov. Roy Roemer, who were in the Triangle attending an education seminar.

But it was noteworthy who was not present – the Democratic candidates for the three highest Tar Heel offices this fall: Bev Perdue, the candidate for governor; Kay Hagan, the candidate for the U.S. Senate; and Walter Dalton, the candidate for lieutenant governor.

Hagan's campaign said she had previous commitments but would campaign with Obama in the future. The Perdue campaign did not return a telephone call.

In the past, N.C. Democratic candidates have often distanced themselves from the Democratic nominee.

Republicans said Obama's proposals to reduce taxes did not square with his record.

N.C. Sen. Richard Burr of Winston-Salem said Obama had raised taxes 94 times during his short Senate career.

“I think that there are certain things that the American voters can predict and raising taxes on the part of Senator Obama is a pretty certain thing,” Burr said in a teleconference. “Senator McCain has been very bold in his pledge to keep taxes low, to cut the corporate tax rate in this country. And most Americans understand that when you have the second highest corporate tax in the world that it's just a matter of time before that affects the investment in this country and the job creation in this country.”

Obama seemed to be reaching out to many of the working class voters who voted for Clinton in the Democratic primary. He shared a stage with Pamella Cash-Roper, a 54-year old licensed nurse from Pittsboro, who along with her husband is unemployed after both had heart surgery.

Cash-Roper said she was forced to cash out her 401(k) plan, forgo some medicines and be careful about the automobile trips she has to make.

A lifelong Republican, Cash-Roper said she was supporting Obama.

Obama said the economic problems can be blamed on Bush.

“We did not arrive at the doorstep of our current economic crisis by accident of history,” Obama said. “This was not an inevitable part of the business cycle that was beyond our power to avoid. It was the logical conclusion of a tired and misguided philosophy that has dominated Washington for far too long.”

News researcher Brooke Cain contributed to this report.