Obama has narrow lead in North Carolina

Sen. Barack Obama was leading in North Carolina early today by an excruciatingly close margin.

With all 100 counties reporting as of 2:15 a.m., Obama was leading by some 11,000 votes over Republican Sen. John McCain. That would be the closest here since President George H.W. Bush carried the state in 1992.

A victory would hand Obama the state's 15 electoral votes.

Provisional ballots will be counted in the coming days, although state elections director Gary Bartlett said that they tend to break along the same lines as the rest of the voting population.

With a methodical campaign that began a year and three days ago at a rally in Durham, Obama built a grassroots political machine unprecedented in recent state history: 21,000 volunteers, more than 400 paid staffers and 50 campaign offices.

The McCain campaign, though substantial by N.C. standards, was a shoestring operation by comparison: 2,000 volunteers, 35 paid staffers and 36 campaign offices.

Obama backed up his organization up with millions of dollars in TV and radio advertising and speeches before crowds ranging from a few thousand to a peak of 28,000 in 21 campaign stops across the state: Asheville, Charlotte, Greensboro, Raleigh and Wilmington.

One of Obama's final campaign stops was Monday evening at UNC Charlotte.

By comparison, McCain didn't start spending on TV advertising here until the fall and made just six stops in North Carolina all year.

Two events were speeches before smaller crowds, and one was a private meeting with the Rev. Billy Graham. His running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, made another four visits.

Throughout the year, Obama persisted in North Carolina.

Despite predictions of a close primary here, he beat Sen. Hillary Clinton by 15 points in May, cutting off her last firewall to the Democratic nomination. Though political strategists said the state would never be in play in November, Obama stuck around.

His national fundraising success played a major role in that decision. After raising millions from small donors online, Obama opted out of the federal campaign finance system, leaving him free of spending limits that hampered McCain here and in other states.

That allowed Obama to play on a much wider field, continuing his outreach in traditionally Republican states. He spent more than $1.6 million on TV ads here in June and July, while McCain spent nothing, according to the Wisconsin Advertising Project.

At the time, polls showed McCain with a healthy lead, but Obama slowly crept up.

Former Democratic attorney general Rufus Edmisten said Obama also helped himself by keeping his message focused.

“The man just doesn't talk about the left-wing foolishness that so many candidates in the past did,” he said.

Obama also tailored his message to North Carolina. He hammered McCain for supporting free-trade agreements, filming a TV ad for the state that featured a Maiden textile company that once made thread for American flags.

Obama's efforts began to pay off when the economy began slumping in September.

In South Carolina, the major TV networks projected that McCain had won the state's electoral votes.

The Associated Press and Observer staff writer Steve Lyttle contributed.