Parties: N.C. Key in '12
This is reprinted with permission from The News & Observer of Raleigh.
BY ROB CHRISTENSEN
AND JOHN FRANK
The News & Observer
Don't tell Lindsey Rietkerk that the presidential election is a year away as she works the crowd outside Kenan Stadium, bundled in a jacket with an Obama sticker and holding a clipboard with voter registration forms.
"Are you registered? Everybody registered? How about you, are you registered? It takes a minute of your time."
If she sounds like the Carolina-blue-clad guy selling programs inside the gate, she doesn't mind. "It's an uphill battle," the Obama campaign volunteer said.
Since November 2008, when Barack Obama won in North Carolina by 14,177 votes on his way to the White House, Democrats have lost voters in 97 of North Carolina's 100 counties and relinquished control of the state legislature for the first time in more than a century.
A year from the 2012 election, the battle already is under way in North Carolina, which is expected to play a major role in selecting the next U.S. president.
Obama has already made a bus tour through the state. Thousands of dollars have already been spent on anti-Obama TV ads. Four Obama campaign offices have opened, and field organizers have been on the payroll since summer.
Both sides now see North Carolina - once a reliably Republican state in presidential elections - as a toss-up critical to their plans to capture the White House.
"It's hard to put together a scenario in which a Republican gets 270 electoral votes without North Carolina," said Charles Black, a Charlotte native and veteran GOP strategist.
"In order to defeat President Obama, we have to pick up North Carolina, Indiana, Virginia - the states that we carried consistently when we won the election - and then go duke it out in the traditional big battlegrounds like Ohio and Florida," Black said.
North Carolina is also more of a priority for Obama this time. The president made that clear when he chose Charlotte for the Democrats' nominating convention next September.
"It is absolutely clear that Republicans cannot win the White House without North Carolina," said Jim Messina, Obama's campaign manager. "We are going to win North Carolina. We are investing in it heavily. We won it last time. We believe we have an even better organization on the ground, more volunteers working harder."
The presidential campaign is the engine that is likely to drive the 2012 election, providing the money and the ground troops for campaigns up and down the ballot. But voters will also decide other major races. The North Carolina governor's race, for example, is often seen as the most competitive in the nation.
Republicans expect to pick up more congressional seats in North Carolina than in any other state. And the GOP is intent on keeping control of the legislature - despite a stormy, polarizing tenure.
One reason the Obama campaign has targeted North Carolina is the state's changing electorate. As the population has grown from 8 million people in 2000 to 9.5 million in 2010, North Carolina has become ideologically less conservative and more of a moderate swing state. As a group, the transplants are more likely to support Obama than native Tar Heels, according to a recent poll by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic Raleigh-based firm.
"Almost half of the people who will be voting in the next election will not have lived in North Carolina for more than two decades," said former state GOP chairman Tom Fetzer. "It's a completely different demographic mix."
But the Democratic Party has lost registered voters since 2008, which most pollsters say is directly attributable to voter discontent over a sour economy.
Among the state's 6.1 million voters, Democrats still hold a lead in registration - 2.7 million to Republicans' 1.9 million. But since the last presidential election, Democrats hemorrhaged 133,816 registered voters, some from nearly every county.
By contrast, Republicans saw their numbers fall by 55,000 through Oct. 1, according to registration records.
One significant group that grew: unaffiliated voters. About 1.5 million North Carolinians don't list a party preference, up nearly 2 percent from November 2008 and the continuation of a decadelong trend.
In 2008, Democrats campaigned as the party of change. Now it is the party in charge, and the voters are not happy, especially in a state where unemployment stands at 10.5 percent.
"The environment now is different," said Marc Farinella, a Democratic strategist. "We have both an incumbent president and an incumbent governor seeking re-election. Dissatisfaction with government at all levels has continued to increase with time, so it's a very different set of dynamics."
Local GOP Worries
In many respects, Obama never shut down his campaign after the 2008 election. A skeleton crew, under the auspices of Organizing for America, kept his organization here alive, lobbying for his health care bill and other efforts.
Then, this summer, it began moving the political machinery out of mothballs, hiring staff and setting up offices in Raleigh, Charlotte, Greensboro and Fayetteville. Nearly every day there are Obama events across the state.
These are the first steps to set up the type of intensive voter registration and get-out-the-vote operations the Obama campaign used in 2008. By fall of that year, the Obama operation had 400 paid staffers and 47 storefront offices.
"We will definitely do more than that in '12," Messina said.
The Republican presidential candidates, meanwhile, are locked in a spirited primary fight. GOP officials say they don't expect to get any boots on the ground in North Carolina until next spring.
Republicans here and in Washington seem to see Obama's North Carolina campaign differently. The leadership in D.C. appears unconcerned, but the Tar Heel GOP is worried.
Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman, said the GOP presidential nominee would have plenty of time next year to organize a campaign in the state. Priebus also questioned whether the Obama buildup in North Carolina was real.
"He's adding bodies and adding offices - I don't know if it's true. I'm just not going to take your premise that there are new bodies down there and not just a bunch of emails and press releases."
Priebus said regardless of the activity, the president's poll numbers have been dropping.
But Obama's numbers here have stabilized in the last three months. And some local Republicans, who believe the party took Obama too lightly in 2008, worry that the GOP may be about to repeat the mistake.
"As we approach 2012, despite the president's popularity problems and the economy, things are starting to shape up in an eerily similar fashion to 2008," said Fetzer, who was chief strategist for the 2010 Republican victories here. "It appears we are seeing what could be another huge advantage in ground effort and message on the part of the Obama campaign.
"Any Republican should be worried at this point. ... A lot of people underestimated the president and his campaign in 2008. I can't believe that people are willing to do that again."
The Democratic Convention in Charlotte could also be a major factor. About 200 people are expected to be hired for the three-day event, and an additional 7,000 to 10,000 could volunteer. Republicans say the Democrats will try to enlist those volunteers for the Obama campaign, just as they did after the 2008 convention in Denver.
The first national party convention in North Carolina will generate major excitement for the Democrats and will create clear ideological battle lines.
The Economy Above All
But other Republicans say any Democratic tactical advantages will be countered because the Democrats are saddled with a bad economy.
"Tactically and organizationally, checkmark the Democrats," said Paul Shumaker, a GOP strategist based in Hickory. "Issue-set, where the voter preferences lie right now, the advantage goes to the Republicans."
The state Republican Party has done some organizing. On Oct. 1, the GOP launched a voter canvass in 72 counties to target 15,000 unaffiliated or moderate Republican voters that the party feels it will need to win the state in 2012.
"It's all about meeting voters," said Wayne King, 31, a Kings Mountain resident and the vice chairman of the state party. "We have the message to appeal to conservative Democrats. It's the middle-of-the-road folks that will decide the election."
The Republicans have also been helped by third-party efforts, such as Crossroads GPS, a Washington-area group with ties to former Bush adviser Karl Rove, that has aired anti-Obama television ads in North Carolina. The RNC has also used TV to attack Obama.
Obama's voter-registration drives were a key to his victory here in 2008. North Carolina had a 23 percent voter increase over 2004, the largest jump in the nation.
The Republicans hope to slow down the Obama organization with some changes in the voter laws. The GOP-controlled legislature passed a bill earlier this year requiring voters to present photo identification at the polls - a measure that Democrats say would disproportionately disenfranchise their voters. The governor vetoed the bill, but Republicans may try again to override the veto in coming special sessions or the short session in May.
Lawmakers also are considering a number of measures that critics say will limit Democratic votes, such as shortening the early voting period, eliminating straight-ticket voting and banning same-day voter registration.
Those measures could come up at any time in the legislature, where the Republicans have a significant advantage.
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