Surely this had to be some kind of mistake, or cruel hoax. It was the weekend before the second presidential debate, and the New York Times was reporting that Barack Obama had hunkered down in a battleground state to do his prep–while also holding a jubilant rally in local Republican territory and crashing the year’s most exclusive state Democratic fundraiser in a “surprise,” media-snatching visit. All of which made perfect sense. What defied credulity was the story’s dateline: Asheville, North Carolina.
My home state, where I spent decades suffering serial heartbreaks along with my fellow progressives, where Al Gore and John Kerry withdrew their campaigns by Labor Day, where George W. Bush won last time by twelve points–my home state was suddenly a toss-up. It had gone from red to pink to indefinite on the cable TV maps just since last spring. Best known to many as the place that gave us Jesse Helms, North Carolina now could–to the astonishment of almost every pundit inside and outside the state–shift its fifteen electoral votes and help seal the deal for the nation’s first African-American president. It was the most surprising thing this side of Indiana.
“When we started this campaign,” Obama crowed to 700 Democratic heavies and a bank of local-news cameras at the Vance-Aycock Dinner he’d “crashed,” “we said we were going to change the political map. And people said no, it can’t be done.” But “we kept coming down to North Carolina…. And despite the pundits, despite the prognosticators, despite the cynicism, thirty days out, we are right here in the hunt in North Carolina. We can win at the top [of the ballot] in North Carolina, and we can win at the bottom of the ballot in North Carolina.”
This was Obama’s third straight weekend in the state–eye-popping for a place that hasn’t gone Democratic for president since 1976, and has seen only one pair of nominee’s wingtips pounding its pavement since then–Bill Clinton’s in 1992, when he lost the state to George H.W. Bush by a hair. And if Obama was sounding triumphal in Asheville, it’s because winning North Carolina would be sweet not only for the obvious reason of helping him get past 270 electoral votes. It would also vindicate his campaign’s extension of Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean’s fifty-state project into the presidential election.
Like Dean before him, Obama was questioned for putting cash and people into states like Georgia and North Carolina, despite their increasing Democratic leanings and rapidly changing demographics. North Carolina, where 3.5 million voted in 2004, gained 1.5 million legal residents from 1996 to 2006– plenty of newcomers to fundamentally alter the state’s voting patterns. But while he’s given up on full-scale efforts in Georgia, Obama’s North Carolina campaign, undergirded by 1,700 volunteers, forty offices and close to 400 paid staffers (McCain has thirty offices but only thirty paid staff), has outregistered Republicans five to one in the state this year and drawn even in the polls heading into the campaign’s last weeks. In the first week of early voting, in mid-October, almost three times as many Democrats as Republicans were casting ballots in a record turnout; while African-Americans are only 22 percent of the state’s population, almost 40 percent of early voters were black. Obama’s been running many more ads in the state than McCain–and gearing them, spot-on, to the economic troubles shared by working-class Carolinians, who’ve suffered some of the nation’s highest job losses, and overspending white-collar families around Raleigh-Durham and Charlotte, which was recently rocked by the implosion of Wachovia, one of several banks headquartered in the city.