If candidates go where they know they'll win, then Hillary Clinton has the western part of North Carolina shored up for the May 6 primary. The entire Clinton clan has visited North Carolina's mountain region over the last two months. That may not appear to mean much the region is less populous than the rest of the state and skewed more towards a Clinton demographic of older, more rural, and primarily white voters but in the last few weeks Barack Obama has been losing ground in the Tar Heel State, where his win was almost assured at one point. "Both Clinton and Obama have a lot at stake here," says Ferrel Guillory, director of UNC's Program on Public Life at the university's Center for the Study of the American South, "Because of Obama's dust-up with his pastor, he needs North Carolina to get him back on the winning track to show that he can rebound in a rather large state." Adds Guillory, "All signs point to Obama having a lead and holding a lead. But the Clintons have worked this state extremely hard, with a grueling campaign schedule."
Clinton's campaign has been working the western part of the state especially hard trotting out the former President in a packed Asheville High School rally, sending daughter Chelsea to a Methodist church and pub-style movie theater, and the candidate herself to Thomas Wolfe Auditorium in the city's Civic Center, with lines to see her wrapping around several blocks. On Tuesday she received a glowing endorsement by Governor Mike Easley. Clinton's barrage in the western part of the state "is pretty standard operating procedure. Candidates mobilize in areas where they know they'll do well instead of trying to sway undecideds," says Thomas Carsey, a professor of political science at U.N.C.-Chapel Hill. Clinton is working to ensure her core support comes out even as Obama's is fraying. Both candidates' campaigns have put out ads in the state that seem to be targeting much of their message to connect more personally now with voters of the working and lower middle class "the kind who live in the small towns and rural areas of North Carolina," says Guillory.
UNC's Carsey believes that ultimately the voting will break down along similar demographic lines as in previous primary states: Obama will do well with minority voters and in college towns and with educated liberals; Clinton is likely to be stronger in working class areas. "What makes North Carolina different from some of the other states is the mix of these types of folks there's no big urban working class populations and no [large] unions here," Carsey notes. The strategy then is to identify where a candidate's core groups are and focus on getting them energized and to the polling stations.
While Obama's campaign has always been nimble at the grassroots, Clinton has her share of such supporters in the state. Amanda Vaughn, a 21-year-old UNC Junior in the middle of exams, got up at 5 a.m. on Thursday to carpool with other volunteers from Heels for Hillary, a group she co-founded last October that organizes rallies and events on campus. The political science major had to be back in Chapel Hill for a noon exam practicing test questions with fellow volunteers on constitutional law during the drive but remained excited about meeting Senator Clinton after the rally. "We are ready for action from someone we know we can deliver," says Vaughn. "She's the only one out there with the proven experience and the willpower and drive to get it done, and that inspires all of us."
But even if western North Carolina is trending Clinton, it does have Obama supporters. Paul Choi, a 30-year-old volunteer for Western North Carolina (WNC) for Change, represents the young voter that has steadfastly come out for Obama throughout the primary season. Shelling roasted peanuts and popping them into his mouth over a cold micro-brewed beer at the Asheville Pizza & Brewing Company meeting place central for Obama supporters Choi just returned from a meet-and-greet with former governor of Mississippi Ray Mabus, now campaigning for Obama. Though the candidate himself hasn't made it to the western part of the state (Michelle Obama is expected to appear in Asheville on Friday), support is strong among young educated voters. Choi, who works in advertising, began volunteering for WNC for Change since attending a fund raiser for Obama a year ago. Never active in politics before, he has spent some 20 hours a week volunteering. Says Choi, Obama "has opened himself up and created this transparency and that compelled me to be a part of this. Going out and changing the world a little bit this way is our march, and that captures the feeling of this campaign."
But Obama's national troubles has become a local issue too. The Republican Party in North Carolina has taken the momentum of the recent Reverend Wright fallout to run negative ads linking Lt. Gov. Beverly Purdue to the issue, claiming she and Obama "are too liberal for North Carolina."