Easley is a meaningful ally in the culture war she's waging against Senator Barack Obama, as she seeks to cast him as a hopelessly unelectable liberal elitist and to persuade the Democratic Party leaders who will decide the nomination – the "superdelegates" – to choose her instead.
"It’s an incredibly strong endorsement because Easley is popular among the blue collar 'Bubba' voters who are Democrats," said David "Mudcat" Saunders, a Democratic consultant who advised former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner on winning rural voters.
Easley had endorsed Edwards for president, but again became a heavily sought superdelegate once Edwards bowed out of the race.
"He's clean in the culture. Easley's wrecked the Charlotte Motor Speedway doing 150 miles per hour, and Bubba likes that," said Saunders, referring to NASCAR fan Easley’s 2003 race car crash. “He's a hunter. He's a strong Second Amendment guy. He gives her great cultural validation in the state of North Carolina."
Clinton aides were jubilant.
"Huge deal," Clinton's North Carolina director, Ace Smith, told Politico.
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Smith, sticking with the campaign’s official line, said that if Clinton could keep the margin within 15 percentage points — she currently trails Obama by 12 percent in an average of polls – she'd have won a victory.
But other Clinton backers were more optimistic, saying Clinton had a shot at the definition of victory she set for Obama in Pennsylvania: Victory.
"The governor clearly feels she can now pull this out," said a prominent Clinton supporter. "He's not doing it to be embarrassed in his own state. Governors don't endorse for number two."
Easley doesn't bring the kind of field organization or financial base that Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell gave Clinton's Pennsylvania campaign, but he does carry a popular name and a symbolic validation of her central argument: That she, better than Obama, connects with the working-class white people who are traditional swing voters.
Easley, 58, the lone survivor of a class of Southern Democratic governors elected between 1998 and 2000, has managed to thrive by figuring out how to win reelection in a region where the national Democratic party is typically a burden to statewide elected officials.
Wary of the stigma carried by the national party, he skipped the party convention in 2000 and 2004. He's term-limited this year after serving two terms.
Easley has looked to popular culture for clues to help him connect to the average voter. In the past, his pollster has asked respondents whether they watch the popular animated Fox series, "King of the Hill." Easley, it turns out, is a fan of the main character Hank Hill, a small-town Texas propane salesman who likes guns and NASCAR. The governor has made the show’s audience his lodestar.
With or without Easley, Obama has the demographic equivalent of a home-field advantage in North Carolina. More than a third of the primary electorate is expected to be African-American, a group Obama is winning by an unmatchable 90-plus percent. To win the state, Clinton needs the support of about three quarters of its white voters – a group on average more educated and more liberal than Democrats in the only part of the country where her margins approached that, the Deep South.
Clinton backers hope the new high-profile of Obama’s controversial pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, has changed the dynamic of the contest and strengthened her han.
Obama was scheduled to tour the state Monday and Tuesday, holding massive rallies in its college towns.
"The total focus is on turning out as big an Obama vote as we can and hoping it's enough to win," said Ed Turlington, 2004 chairman of John Edwards' campaign, who backs Obama.
Obama has also been outspending Clinton in North Carolina, as elsewhere. Smith estimated that the Illinois senator has a three-to-one edge in television advertising in the state. And so the campaigns are engaged in the ritual sparring over the meaning of victory.
"A win is one more vote than the other candidate," said Turlington.
"If we can take it to anything lower than double digits, it's been an incredible accomplishment for us here," said Tom Hendrickson, a former state party chairman, who backs Clinton.
Recent polling has shown the gap between the two candidates narrowing – with the movement among the same moderate voters to whom Easley has his strongest appeal.
"Her numbers went up in the same demographic she controlled in Pennsylvania to win – which is white male, specifically blue collar white males," said Dean Debnam, president of North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling, which found Monday that Clinton had cut Obama's lead from 25 percentage points to 12. "Obama had been pulling closer to her in the white vote, and she had regained that strongly in the past week."
Debnam said Easley's endorsement was an enormous boon, especially among moderate whites. "I don't think there could be a more perfect candidate for that demographic," he said. Clinton's other asset with the "Bubba" vote, her husband, has also been working the state hard, continuing what's become his specialty: Speeches to working-class white audiences in small media markets.
"He's going into counties where he can land an airplane and she cannot, because she's in too big a plane," said David Parker, a Statesville lawyer and uncommitted superdelegate.
Whatever Easley's electoral virtues, though, his endorsement also carries a clear message for an even more important audience—the superdelegates.
"The message of Easley's endorsement to superdelegates around the country is that she is the most electable Democrat in November," said Robert Zimmerman, a New York superdelegate who backs Clinton.
Avi Zenilman, Richard T. Cullen and David Mark contributed to this report.
Editor's note: This version corrections the affiliation of Ed Turlington.