Parties Compete for Tarheel Vote


Editor's note: This article is the third in an occasional series about unexpected swing states in the 2004 presidential race.

Not since the 1976 victory of Jimmy Carter, a peanut farmer from neighboring Georgia, has a Democrat carried North Carolina in a presidential election.

With John Kerry from Massachusetts topping the Democratic ticket, this state would seem difficult to move into the blue column. But with North Carolina Sen. John Edwards running as vice president, Democrats and some experts think there is a chance at a historic Democratic victory.

"Having Senator Edwards on the ticket changes the dynamics, and kind of throws out the historical expectations for North Carolina," said Schorr Johnson, communications director for the North Carolina Democratic Party (search).

But Republicans say Edwards will have little impact, and that Bush's security platform will play well in North Carolina, home of several military bases and about 800,000 veterans. And while manufacturing jobs may be leaving the state, the overall economy is going pretty well.

Edwards' presence on the ticket will cause both parties to pour money into the state, but North Carolina is still not a bubble state, said Jim Cain, vice chairman of the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign (search) and a Republican National committeeman for North Carolina.

Edwards' Senate voting record "puts him significantly out of the mainstream in North Carolina" and will "galvanize the Republican base and some conservative Democrats to be more active in the campaign. It doesn’t move Republicans closer to the Democratic ticket," Cain said.

The two primary issues that will attract voters to Bush are national security and the economy, Cain said. "It's in large part security, national defense. It’s the economy. There are some areas of North Carolina, in certain counties where the jobless rate is still high, but North Carolina is by and large experiencing the same kind of dynamic growth that the rest of the country is experiencing."

Bush won every Southern state in 2000, but with a North Carolinian on the ticket, the Kerry campaign has decided to put resources into the state, and Democrats say its 15 electoral votes are very much in play.

Bush is leading Kerry by a margin of 50 to 45 percent, according to a Rasmussen Reports poll released on Aug. 3 and conducted from July 1-31 of likely voters. That lead is within the 5-point margin of error.

For North Carolinians trade is a major issue, and one the Democrats plan to exploit. Textile and furniture factories are both big industries in the state, and North Carolinians working in these fields have been hit hard by a wave of outsourcing.

This "is an issue where there is a clear distinction, and President Bush has been fully supportive of free trade, and that’s not going to play well in North Carolina," Johnson said.

The military's big footprint in North Carolina also may not benefit the president, Johnson said. In addition to the fact that military families are concerned about their loved ones deployed in Iraq, North Carolinians are worried about Bush's veteran policy, he said.

Bush "has a lot of broken promises when it comes to fully funding veterans in North Carolina," Johnson said. "Kerry is a vet and that’s going to be important for North Carolina."

On Nov. 2, North Carolina will also elect Edwards' replacement in the Senate as well as vote for governor. The three races are expected to affect each other, and Democrats currently have the advantage. They are leading in the polls and have better name recognition in both the Senate and governor's races. Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles (search) faces Republican Rep. Richard Burr in the Senate race while incumbent Gov. Mike Easley (search), a Democrat, is opposed by Republican state Sen. Patrick Ballantine.

"Each race is separate, however we think that Edwards' presence on the ticket is going to create record — if not historic — turnouts in North Carolina on Election Day. We think it's going to help Democrats all the way down the ballot," Johnson said.

Recent history shows that while North Carolina has gone Republican, it is winnable for Democrats. In 1996, Clinton lost the state by 5 points, and in 1992, the Democrats' margin of defeat in the state was less than one point.

Democratic operatives say 2004 will be different from 2000 because Kerry is putting more resources into the state. North Carolinian Ed Turlington, who managed John Edwards’ presidential campaign, said the Kerry campaign is running a much better campaign in North Carolina than Al Gore did. "Kerry-Edwards is running a different campaign than I’ve seen in years." He cited the fact that the campaign hired local leaders rather than relying on outside operatives.

Gibbs Knotts, a political science professor at Western Carolina University (search), warned that although the climate is somewhat different this year, that won't be enough for Kerry to capture the state. "I'm not sure that [Edwards being on the ticket is] going to help Kerry win North Carolina. ... I just think the culture of the state and the recent history of supporting Republicans at the presidential level is too much to overcome.

"My sense of the state is that it's going to be tough for North Carolinians to vote for a senator from Massachusetts to be president," Knotts added.

North Carolina is a rapidly growing state, with the total population increasing 21.4 percent from 1990 to 2000. In addition to Hispanics, many of whom are not registered or eligible to vote, many of the newcomers are white from outside of the South. Experts disagree about how much these demographic changes are going to affect the political culture in the state.

"A lot of the people that move to the South are middle and upper class, and those people tend to be a little more Republican. They may tend to be attracted to the more traditional values that the region has," Knotts said.

Thad Beyle, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (search), disagrees.

"Some of the people coming in from other states have kind of a different view. They haven't been brought up in the old South," he said.