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Those other races

All politics may be more local than you think

Issue: "Food fight," May 3, 2008

In theory now the deciding vote to wrap up our prolonged presidential primary season could be cast by me. Or more possibly, by one of my fellow Tarheels. Any of us latter-day primary voters could cast the ballot that will pitch campaign momentum to Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama and cause one or the other to capitulate.

On May 6 my neighbors and I, like other eligible and willing voters across North Carolina, will file into the fellowship hall at the church a few blocks away that serves as our precinct polling station. We will admire one another's azaleas as we go, and we will dodge the gauntlet of eco-activists and party zealots in the parking lot by asking about the kids and the wedding at the end of the month.

What some of us will be thinking is this: Just how did I register my party affiliation two, 10, or 20 years ago? It's been a few election cycles since most of us bothered to vote in a primary, so truthfully we can't remember the last time our designated party mattered.

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This time it will: Only registered Democrats or independents will be able to cast a potentially decisive vote in this closed primary. In my county over 2,000 voters-triple the 2004 number-have switched affiliation from Republican to Democratic since January.

Some are undoubtedly frustrated with the Bush administration over the war or stem-cell research or simply the fact that GOPers aren't cool anymore. Others are following the militant campaign of Rush Limbaugh and his ilk to throw the Democrats' race into chaos by voting for the lesser candidate in the hope she will prove the easier one for Republicans to beat come November. And others-and I know this because I've talked to them-have a simple heartfelt desire to vote for a black man. They feel complicit in my state's history of Jim Crow laws that kept good men and women down.

But we have other races to run, and voters seem to have forgotten that. State Sen. Fred Smith thinks all the attention focused on Democrats will help him prevail in the state's primary balloting for governor. As the most conservative candidate in a five-way GOP race, Smith believes the defection of moderate Republicans and unaffiliated voters will give him an edge over his nearest rival, Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory. The two candidates are polling at about 30 percent each. Smith, who last week hit the state's smaller towns with a series of barbeque rallies featuring country star Lee Greenwood, told me statehouse corruption and recession worries are top concerns on the campaign trail, "and fiscal and social conservatives know that I understand their concern. They'll stick with me."

Voters who have switched party affiliation for the sake of a presidential vote may discover that they have only hurt themselves. The Democrat-led state house and state legislature here is awash in scandal and has allowed state spending to increase by 10 percent in the last year. Stealth Republicans voting in the Democratic primary will have only big spenders to choose from on the gubernatorial slate. The five GOP candidates at least have pledged themselves to spending limits and a taxpayers bill of rights.

"The presidential race has sapped attention away from all of the races down the ballot. There will be a big turnout of voters, but they will be participating without the requisite information," said John Hood, president of the John Locke Foundation, a think tank in Raleigh. The lingering Obama/Clinton race "is more or less a downside for state politicians," Hood told me last week. "Many of the voters going to the polls will have very little information about state and local candidates, and they will be voting on the basis of some vague sense of familiarity."

Everywhere I hear voters say they don't like any choice in the presidential race. Yet they ignore state officeholders who have watch over not only our wallets but most of our roads, our law enforcement, our schools, and increasingly hot issues like marriage and immigration. Governors have gone on to become four of our last five presidents. So I issue this challenge to my fellow latter-day primary voters: Why not look down the road by looking down the ballot first?

(Note: This article has been corrected to reflect that Pat McCrory is the mayor of Charlotte.)

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