Nobody expected to see Democratic campaign operatives in the mountains of Yancey County this year. But then, no one expected North Carolina to be one of the hottest battlegrounds of the 2008 presidential race.
“It's just turned the world up on its head,” says Ted Arrington, a UNC Charlotte political scientist. “It's just the year of surprises.”
As if to erase any doubts about North Carolina's front-line status, Democrat Barack Obama is expected to speak Monday afternoon at UNC Charlotte as part of an election-eve barnstorm. Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin was in Raleigh on Saturday. For both, it's the second visit to the state in a week.
In fact, North Carolina is the only state whose presidential, Senate and governor's races are all rated as toss-ups.
Democrat Kay Hagan is trying to unseat Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole in a contest that will help determine whether Democrats win a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. The race, which polls suggest could go either way, has drawn more than $15 million from national party groups, according to the Campaign Finance Institute.
It drew more attention last week when Hagan threatened to sue Dole over an ad that claimed Hagan shares the agenda of an atheist group called Godless Americans.
In the governor's race, Charlotte Republican Mayor Pat McCrory is knotted with Democratic Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue for a seat no Republican has won for 20 years.
And in the 8th Congressional District, which Republican Rep. Robin Hayes won by just 329 votes in 2006, he and Democrat Larry Kissell are locked in a close rematch.
With so many close races, interest has exploded. Through Friday, more than a third of the state's registered voters had voted early.
Few expected Democrats to seriously contest the presidential race in a state that hasn't gone blue since 1976 and which George W. Bush twice won with 56 percent of the vote.
But Bush's popularity tumbled even before the Dow and the economy.
“If the economy were good, I don't think Kay Hagan would be close,” says Dean Debnam, president of the Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling. “And if the economy were good, I don't think Obama would be close.”
But Obama, who raised more than $600 million for the campaign, has been able to invest heavily in the state.
From Oct. 21-28, he'd outspent McCain and Republican allies 2-1 in North Carolina, according to the Wisconsin Advertising Project, which tracks TV ads.
Obama organizers have even deployed in places such as Yancey and Avery counties in Western North Carolina, counties that twice voted strongly for Bush.
“I've never seen a paid staffer for any national campaign in Yancey County,” says Paul Feldman, 46, a mental health counselor in Burnsville.
It's part of an N.C. ground game run by 21,000 Obama volunteers. The use of sophisticated databases to reach Democrats in far-flung places such as Avery County was the subject of a story last week in The Wall Street Journal. Republicans are using similar techniques to target their voters.
“Both of these parties are increasingly better at identifying and turning out voters,” says John Hood, president of the Raleigh-based John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank.
“This year, there's a lot more energy and enthusiasm for the Democrats. Bush is a huge drag on Republicans (and) the economy really threw Republicans for a loop.”
This weekend, all the campaigns have people knocking on doors and making last-minute appeals.
“It's up to the ground game now,” says GOP strategist Paul Shumaker, “and who does the best job of getting their folks out.”
Real Clear Politics, a polling clearinghouse, shows Democrats Obama and Hagan with slight leads, though both within the margin of error. But it also shows McCrory, the Republican, with a slight edge over Perdue.
“Given the nature of the year, which is clearly Democratic, and given that the governor's mansion has been Democratic for a long time, it's very surprising to see Lt. Gov. Perdue in such a tight race,” says Debnam, of the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling.
He says voters face a choice of “two moderate” candidates in which, so far, McCrory has been able to cut short Obama's coattails.
Political scientist Andrew Taylor says Perdue, McCain and Dole each belongs to the party in power, either in Washington or Raleigh.
“They are all under significant pressure,” says Taylor, of N.C. State. “And it may really be a reflection of how much North Carolinians are looking for a little bit of a change.”
One reflection of how tight North Carolina's races are: Tom Cox, former Republican chairman of the Mecklenburg County commissioners, is undecided in the biggest one of all.
“If I were to vote for Barack Obama, it would be because he has the kind of disposition and mind that I think the presidency needs,” Cox says.
“If I were to vote for John McCain, it would be because he would make it difficult for (Democratic House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi to get what she wants.”