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Carolina blues

Politics | Scandal amid a close contest in North Carolina could foretell swing state headaches for Democrats and Obama heading toward a September convention in the Tar Heel State

Issue: "The GOP and Hispanics," May 19, 2012

CHAPEL HILL, N.C.-For a visitor to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), at least one distinctive is difficult to miss: the school's famed color scheme. Shades of "Carolina blue" appear everywhere-stadium seats, pavement on athletic tracks, T-shirts, shoes, sweatpants, and scarves.

But just six months ahead of the nation's presidential elections, it's less clear what political shade the state of North Carolina will turn in November: Republican red or Democratic blue.

That's because North Carolina represents one of at least seven swing states that could go either way in choosing a presidential candidate. President Barack Obama was the first Democrat to win the state since Jimmy Carter's election in 1976, and Democrats are eager for a repeat. Yet 2010 elections saw Republicans retake the state legislature, and the state's embattled Democratic governor made a belated decision earlier this year to leave office after just one term.

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Obama has visited the state five times in the last six months-including an appearance at a UNC basketball arena on April 24-yet what standing Democrats will have when the party holds its national convention in Charlotte in September is an open question. For Obama, North Carolina isn't a political slam dunk.

With the president headed to Chapel Hill, the state's Democratic Party landed itself in a sexual harassment scandal that raised questions about a cover-up at the highest levels-an embarrassment for the Democrats ahead of the state's national spotlight. Also in Greensboro, former Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards is on trial, facing six criminal counts for allegedly using campaign funds to cover up an adulterous affair and the child he fathered with his mistress.

At the same time, activists are in a pitched battle over a state constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman that's front and center on the state's May 8 primary ballot. It's a vote with national implications: Democratic Party leaders are debating whether to add support for gay marriage to the party's platform during the national convention in Charlotte.

Democratic leaders in North Carolina-and the president himself-publicly oppose the amendment that defends traditional marriage. But polls showed a narrow majority of North Carolina voters supporting it just weeks ahead of the primary. The same polls showed black voters-who largely support Obama-overwhelmingly in favor of the marriage amendment.

All the while, Republicans are drafting their own game plan: Less than a week before Obama landed in Chapel Hill, likely GOP nominee Mitt Romney visited Charlotte, staking out a spot with a view of the stadium where the president will speak at the fall convention. Romney hit hard on the issue most important to most voters in a state that he needs to win: North Carolina's still-struggling economy.

The political maneuvering makes for a contentious pre-game show with serious implications: How the swing states will swing come November, and what happens to legal protections for traditional marriage-across the country for years to come.

An outsider visiting Chapel Hill might be tempted to think Obama has already won. More than 8,000 students and visitors waited hours in a cold wind to pack into the school's Carmichael Arena on April 24 to hear Obama deliver remarks about interest rates on student loans. The appearance-dubbed "an official visit" by the White House-was at least equal parts campaign rally with a crucial voting bloc of young voters who overwhelmingly supported Obama during the last election.

The scene was reminiscent of the president's electric campaign appearances in 2008: blaring music, roaring cheers, and Obama's preacher-like cadence as he invited "amens" from the crowd then led a charismatic call for support that promised better days ahead and this assurance from the president: "I believe in you."

It's a crowd that wants to believe in Obama. Indeed, during the final moments of the president's speech, it didn't seem to matter what he was saying. His enthusiasm and charisma generated enough excitement to elicit roaring cheers that drowned out his last remarks. (I was standing less than 100 feet from the president but had to look up the transcript to find out how his speech ended.)

But the enthusiasm isn't unanimous. UNC senior Tom Shane said he voted for Obama in 2008 but doubts he'll vote for anyone this year: "I don't think it really matters." The business major is disappointed with Obama's first term and apathetic. "I was excited last time," he said. " I felt like he came in and had some good ideas and was going to make some good changes. I don't feel that way anymore."

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