McCain, Obama Bolster Support Before They Battle For The State

This story was written by Eugene Wang, The Chronicle

Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain has compared rival Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama to former President Jimmy Carter on numerous occasions, an apparent counter to Obama's comparisons of McCain to President George W. Bush.

McCain, however, might hope Obama does not emulate Carter's 1976 presidential campaign in one respect: Carter was the last Democrat to win North Carolina-a state pundits and campaign analysts have singled out as a potential battleground in this year's election.

North Carolina holds 15 of the possible 538 electoral votes in the presidential election. A candidate needs 270 or more votes to win the presidency.

Both candidates have indicated that North Carolina will be important in the election. Obama kicked off his general election campaign June 9 in Raleigh with a speech on economic policy. McCain spoke with prominent evangelist Billy Graham and his son in Montreat, N.C. June 29.

Several factors align the Tar Heel state squarely with the Republican candidate's electoral base. North Carolina is home to Camp Lejeune and Fort Bragg-the second-largest military base in the country-which should benefit McCain, a former prisoner of war. Additionally, the state is considered socially conservative and voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004, by a margin of 13 and 12 points, respectively.

This year, the Obama campaign hopes to change the state's profile. The Illinois senator's electoral base counts on blacks, young voters and college-educated adults. The black population makes up more than 20 percent of the state's 8 million residents, and urban centers like Raleigh-Durham and Charlotte, also hubs of higher education, are likely to vote for Obama.

A political transition from red to blue is likely to happen in North Carolina, said Jerry Hough, James B. Duke professor of political science. He pointed to the state's changing demographics-increasing numbers of younger voters and a growing Hispanic population-as evidence that Obama could carry the state.

Hough added that Obama's economic positions are likely to appeal to middle-class voters who have been hurt most by the weak economy.

"The two Southern states that [the Obama campaign] has the best chance of winning in [are] Virginia and North Carolina," said Bruce Jentleson, former foreign policy adviser to Al Gore and a professor of public policy studies. "Right now, McCain is on the defensive for North Carolina and Obama is on the offensive."

Republican strategist Marc Rotterman, however, said he is skeptical of Obama's chances in North Carolina.

"It's not a practical strategy that Barack is trying to employ," Rotterman said. "Barack's values and beliefs are out of tune with the average North Carolinian."

The Obama campaign announced in early June that it will pursue a "50-state general election strategy" by deploying and maintaining staff in all states.

Campaigns tend to focus their resources on swing states-those with a large population of independent voters and with a record of aligning with the winning party, said Frederick Mayer, director of graduate studies for public policy studies.

"All strategy has to be directed toward winning the 270th electoral vote," said David Rohde, Ernestine Friedl professor of political science. "While North Carolina is not likely to provide that, it is possible."

A June 10 Rasmussen poll put McCain ahead of Obama by two percentage points in the Tar Heel state. Although the race between the candidates is close in North Carolina, several other states-such as Michigan, Virginia, Florida and Ohio-have garnered more attention as key swing states because analysts believe the are more likely than North Carolina to provide the winning vote.

"If the Obama people can put a lot of pressure on North Carolina that requires a response by the McCain campaign which it cannot afford, that gives [McCain] less resources in those states which are more likely to provide the 270th electoral vote," Rohde said.

Rotterman added that McCain needs to perform well in political bellwether states like Ohio and Pennsylvania-in addition to winning most of the Southern states-in order to win the election.

"As Ohio goes, I think, so may go the nation, particularly because of the economic situation," Rotterman said.

Although North Carolina is likely to be closer between the Republicans and the Democrats than in years past, some political observers question the importance of the state's electoral votes.

"We're sort of like a team on the bubble to get into the NCAA [Tournament]," Democratic strategist Gary Pearce said. "We're not a first-tier battleground state."