National campaign swaying N.C. races?

Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain are spending millions of dollars to air campaign ads in North Carolina. Storefront presidential headquarters are popping up across the state, and massive voter registration efforts are under way.

North Carolina's role as a battleground state will not only bring presidential campaigning here. It also could influence or overshadow North Carolina's races for governor, U.S. Senate and other statewide offices:

Led by a major registration drive by the Obama campaign, the number of new Democratic voters is greatly outpacing – by an 8-to-1 ratio – the numbers for Republican voters.

“It could be harmful,” said Jack Hawke, the chief strategist for Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, the Republican candidate for governor. “It has to be a concern.”

Candidates from the state house to the courthouse may have a hard time getting attention. They must compete with Obama and McCain to garner news coverage, recruit volunteers or money and attract the voters' attention.

“McCain and Obama are great stories and compelling personalities,” said Gary Pearce, a veteran Democratic strategist. “Now you have the celebrityhood of Sarah Palin. It sort of makes the governor's race and the Senate race a little less compelling theater. It gives them second billing.”

Some state candidates will likely find it difficult to buy TV time because presidential and other candidates for federal office get preference in purchasing ad spots, according to federal law.

N.C. in play for Dems?

North Carolina has not experienced a major fall presidential campaign since at least 1992, when Democrat Bill Clinton tried to take the state over Republican incumbent George H.W. Bush. Others say the last comparable year is 1976, when Democrat Jimmy Carter defeated President Ford.

Like most of the South, North Carolina has become a red state in presidential elections, with the Republican candidate carrying the state in the last seven elections – usually by a decisive margin.

But Obama is gambling that North Carolina could be in play for Democrats this year because of demographic changes and voter dissatisfaction about the country's direction.

N.C. Democrats are likely to benefit from a voter registration drive started by the Obama campaign last spring.

The Obama campaign has continued that effort, opening 16 offices around the state. The campaign has hired 150-200 staffers and spent at least $2.5 million on TV ads since the state's primary.

As of Sept. 6, there has been a net gain of 176,806 new Democratic voters in North Carolina this year, compared to a net gain of 21,672 new Republican voters, according to the State Board of Elections. There has also been a net gain of 127,449 unaffiliated voters.

“Having the kind of ground operation that Obama campaign has is going to help the entire ticket, but most especially the statewide candidates,” said state Democratic chairman Jerry Meek.

The McCain operation has been playing catch up. It announced last week that it had appointed chairs in all 100 counties, set up nine offices and hired 17 staffers. It has begun running TV ads.

Republicans say McCain's naming of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate will help counter what Obama's campaign is doing. Palin is a favorite of party conservatives, many of whom were slow to warm to McCain.

“We've already seen the increased excitement,” said Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr.

“Any woman who can skin a moose has a home in North Carolina for many North Carolinians.”

The Obama effect could be particularly important in the races for governor and the U.S. Senate, both regarded as among the hottest in the nation.

In the governor's race, Democrat Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue faces McCrory. In the Senate race, GOP incumbent Elizabeth Dole is being challenged by Democrat Kay Hagan.

Public opinion polls suggest that both races are so close they could go either way.

A hand in governor's race

In the past, Republicans have been elected governor in North Carolina when GOP presidential candidates had strong coattails. Jim Holshouser was helped by the Nixon landslide of 1972, and Jim Martin by the Reagan landslide of 1984.

But this year, it is Democrats who are hoping for a lift from the national ticket.

“I feel I'm in outer space,” Pearce said. “When is the last time you heard anyone say, ‘Gee, maybe the Democratic presidential candidate will help us'?”

Ted Arrington, a political science professor at the UNC Charlotte, said there is a chance, though, that Obama may ultimately decide that North Carolina is too big a gamble, and shift his resources to more traditional battleground states.

If the Obama campaign leaves the state, the McCain campaign is likely to follow suit.

“That decision hasn't been made,” Arrington said. “The Obama campaign can wait two to three weeks to see how things shake out.”