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Obama's visit highlights N.C. political battleground

RALEIGH, N.C. — When President Barack Obama flies into the Triangle today, he will enter a state that has shifted from reliably Republican in national politics to one of the newest presidential battleground states.

The Obama visit is not overtly political, and he is expected to focus on job training and economic issues when he visits Cree, the LED lighting manufacturing company in Durham.

But he comes when the stage is being set for a major presidential contest next year.

Even 18 months before the 2012 election, the signs of an unusual presidential year are abundant:

Plans are being laid for the Democratic convention in Charlotte.

The Republican-controlled legislature is throwing up roadblocks to slow the president's organization.

The Obama organization has already begun mobilizing.

The state GOP last week began airing their first anti-Obama ads.

For decades, North Carolina was regarded as a flyover state - as in, the candidates flew over North Carolina on the way to some place where presidential campaigns were decided, such as Florida, Ohio or Pennsylvania. But now it is a must-win state, especially if the GOP hopes to regain the White House.

"I can't imagine a scenario by which a Republican wins the presidency without winning North Carolina," said Charles Black, an adviser to GOP presidential candidates from Ronald Reagan to John McCain. "States like North Carolina and Virginia and Indiana, which Obama carried narrowly, are the first ones that Republicans need to get back to be able to get to 270 electoral votes."

Obama surprised Republicans in 2008 when he became the first Democrat in 32 years to carry North Carolina. He won by a mere 14,177 votes, his closest victory margin in the country.

It was so unexpected that South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a McCain friend, famously boasted during the last campaign, "I'll beat (Olympic champion) Michael Phelps in swimming before Obama wins North Carolina."

Republicans are not making any swimming quips this time.

Republicans say they will focus on North Carolina early in an effort not to let slip away what they view as a center/right state that has taken a conservative shift since 2008 by electing a Republican legislature, and one which continues to suffer high unemployment. In April, the jobless rate was 9.7 percent, well above the national average of 9 percent.

"I think the next Republican nominee this time will take it more seriously from the beginning, and may be able to - not lock it up early, but get the lead early," Black said.

But the Obama campaign is also taking it seriously.

It has been lavishing attention on the state. The biggest strategic move was selecting Charlotte as the site of the National Democratic Convention in September 2012.

In the Triangle, Vice President Joe Biden visited the same Cree plant last year as the president. First lady Michelle Obama was at Camp Lejeune last month. Kathleen Sebelius, the Health and Human Services secretary, was in Greenville recently, to name just several visits by administration figures.

"Anyone who believes that North Carolina in 2008 was just an aberration is very mistaken," said Democratic U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield of Wilson, a top Obama ally in the state. "The president will be fully engaged in North Carolina, pre-convention and post-convention. The president is going to spend significant amounts of time in North Carolina."

Obama took a risk on trying to win in North Carolina in 2008 in what was then considered a red state. But this time, North Carolina could very well play a more important role in his strategy. Republicans recognize the threat.

The state Republican Party began running a TV commercial last week that criticizes Obama, partly in an effort to set the tone prior to his Durham visit.

"Thanks to Obama's budget deficits, we face high unemployment and an uncertain future," the announcer says in the ad. "And now he's back, asking us to believe him again."

One question is whether Obama can re-create the kind of excitement and energy he had in 2008 as the first black presidential nominee of a major political party.

Obama put together an unparalleled organization across North Carolina. It included 47 storefront offices and 400 paid staffers, as well as tens of thousands of volunteers. The Obama campaign has kept its organization alive between elections, under the title Organizing for America; it has lobbied for the president's agenda, particularly his health care plan.

In recent weeks, it has begun reaching out to try to reassemble the 2008 organization.

Black said he expects the Obama campaign to use the same effective game plan it used in Colorado during the Democratic convention in Denver in 2008: Recruit thousands of volunteers for the Charlotte convention and convert them into campaign volunteers for the fall.

"It really helped deliver a powerful organization for them in Colorado," Black said. "I expect them to take the same approach in Charlotte, which might be worth a couple of points in organizational edge."

Republicans, meanwhile, are mobilizing their own troops.

"Gov. [Bev] Perdue and President Obama will not go away quietly," former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, the likely GOP candidate for governor, told the state Republican Convention last weekend in Wilmington. "Right now millions of dollars are pouring into our state. Thousands of ACORN-style workers are moving into our state as we speak."

McCrory was using political hyperbole, but as the election draws closer, both sides will spend more money and beef up operations.

Tar Heel Republicans are also looking at ways of spurring Christian conservatives to come to the polls during the presidential election. During a House Republican caucus meeting - which was accidentally broadcast this month - Rep. Mark Hilton, a Catawba County Republican, said the legislature needs to put on the November 2012 ballot a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage to help conservative groups.

"They need to be able to get their ground-game working to get out the vote for it to be on the November ballot," Hilton said.

The legislature also is trying to throw roadblocks in the way of the Obama organization, reducing the tools it used in 2008. The legislature is moving to shorten the early-voting period, to require photo IDs for voting, to bar straight-party voting, and to cut election funding, some of which pays for satellite voting sites.

Butterfield, a former judge and civil rights attorney, said the photo ID and the shorter early-voting period bills are efforts to "disenfranchise" voters. He said both may violate the federal Voting Rights Act if they become law.

"I challenge our Republican friends in the legislature to rethink these devices," Butterfield said. "We might have to meet them in court."

He said Democrats would not be deterred to by Republican legislative efforts.

"It's going to challenge us to do even more," Butterfield said.

With this type of maneuvering 18 months before the election, it seems likely that North Carolina will be in for an intense presidential campaign.

"If people thought the presidential race was exciting here in 2008, they ought (to) be ready for it to be twice as exciting next year," poll director Tom Jensen said. "This is going to be the new Ohio and the new Florida. We are really going to be at the epicenter, not just with the convention but all the way through November."