Is North Carolina on campaign bubble?

Barely a week after essentially sewing up the Democratic nomination for president and becoming the first candidate of African American descent to become the presumptive nominee of a major political party, Sen. Barack Obama did something else unusual: He came to North Carolina to launch a two-week tour for his White House campaign, putting into play a state most analysts have long ceded to the Republican Party.

That's more than just a remarkable change in a campaign all about change. The Obama camp obviously intends North Carolina to be the first step in a Democratic Party reclamation of Southern states. It's also refusing to give the presumptive GOP nominee, Sen. John McCain, a free ride in North Carolina.

While many knowledgeable analysts doubt that North Carolina will go for a Democrat this fall in the presidential race – only one Democrat, Jimmy Carter in 1976, has won the state since 1964 – Sen. Obama's choice of Raleigh to make a major speech on his economic proposals does several things. It draws a sharp line in the sand announcing the Democrats' plans to contest for the state's 5.5 million voters, provides a boost to party regulars who want to see a strong presence here and forces Sen. McCain to spend resources – appearances as well as money – in a state Republicans have enjoyed in federal elections for three decades.

The Obama campaign was buoyed by a strong though belated endorsement Saturday by Sen. Hillary Clinton, once regarded as the clear front runner for the White House and a fierce competitor during the primary season. Gov. Mike Easley, who backed Sen. Clinton in the primary, swung aboard as well Monday. “I know I'm late, but I am on the train. I'd rather be a bum on the boxcar of the Obama train than at the front of the bus with John McCain,” the governor said in introducing Sen. Obama at the State Fairgrounds.

Sen. Obama sought to draw sharp contrasts between his proposals and those of Sen. McCain, accusing his opponent of embracing President Bush's economic policies. Sen. Obama called for more help for those facing home foreclosure, eliminating income taxes for seniors who have less than $50,000 income and a tax credit of $500 per person or $1,000 per family for those with less than $50,000 in earnings. It's part of a $50 billion stimulus package he's proposing.

Those plans do differ from Sen. McCain's, but it's worth noting that the Republican has also called for more help with potential foreclosures and for repeal of the alternative minimum tax, which would also help middle-class families. As the campaign progresses, more details from the candidates will help voters make up their minds.

But this much is clear: The Obama campaign thinks it can win North Carolina, and the McCain campaign believes it will. Voters should get ready for a lively and, we hope, informative campaign.