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.
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."
Fellow senior Charlie Carrigan isn't enthusiastic either: "Out of the two frontrunners, I'm not really a fan of either." Carrigan, a Ron Paul supporter, said he's most concerned about the economy and finding a job when he graduates. When asked which frontrunner resonates more on fiscal policy, he said: "Honestly, I really don't know."
Beneath the rally roar, both students' comments would suggest that independent voters aren't necessarily in Obama's camp as they were four years ago. And online coverage of the president's visit in The Daily Tar Heel, the student paper, seemed as enthusiastic about the same-day visit of late-night talk show host Jimmy Fallon. (Obama appeared on Fallon's show during a taping on campus.)
Other students and visitors at the Obama event came to promote their opposition to North Carolina's marriage amendment. The amendment on the state's May 8 primary ballot reads: "Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State." Twenty-nine other states have constitutional amendments that prohibit gay marriage.
Handfuls of students at Obama's appearance wore T-shirts with the message: "Vote No On Amendment One." Billboards leading into Chapel Hill carried the same message. The UNC Association of Student Governments-an organization representing student governments from all 17 schools in the University of North Carolina system-voted to oppose the amendment.
A front-page story in The Carrboro Citizen, a newspaper from a nearby town, carried the headline: "Biz owners: Amendment One could harm businesses." The Coalition to Protect North Carolina Families, the primary organization raising funds to oppose the marriage amendment, announced it had raised $1.1 million by March 27 (see sidebar below).
Anti-amendment yard signs carried the message: "Protect all NC Families-Vote Against Amendment One"-a message sure to confuse both sides of the debate. Other signs read: "Amendment One Harms Children." A fact sheet from the group contends that the amendment would harm children because they "could lose their healthcare and prescription drug coverage."
That's a message Bill Brooks of the North Carolina Family Policy Council (NCFPC) and other amendment supporters find particularly disingenuous. Brooks says the amendment wouldn't affect private employers that offer same-sex benefits, though it would prevent the government from forcing employers to offer such benefits. He does say the amendment could prevent local governments from offering benefits to homosexual couples: Currently nine county or city governments offer domestic partner benefits. Either way, Brooks says the sweeping contention that the marriage amendment "harms children" is "simply untrue."
Officials at NCFPC have engaged churches about the amendment and published information answering opponents' objections. A pro-amendment rally in Raleigh days before Obama's visit drew about 3,000 people, according to police estimates. Brooks believes voter turnout during the primary will be key to the amendment's passage.
Obama didn't mention the amendment during his UNC speech, but he expressed public opposition to the measure in March-a move some see as an incremental approach to endorsing gay marriage. (The president in 2010 said his views on gay marriage "are constantly evolving.")
The president also didn't mention the sexual harassment scandal engulfing North Carolina's Democratic Party. The News and Observer in Raleigh obtained emails revealing that David Parker, the state party's chairman, negotiated a financial settlement with a former male employee who accused executive director Jay Parmley of sexual harassment.
Parmley denied the accusations but resigned from his post. The male accuser, Adriadn Ortega, was fired in November and claims he lost his job because he complained about lurid advances by Parmley.
It's unclear how much money Parker paid Ortega in the settlement, or where the money came from. Parker has defended his actions and Parmley. He's also refused to resign from his post as chairman, but says he'll step down after a special election in May.
The cover-up could extend to the governor's mansion. When reporters pressed Gov. Bev Perdue to disclose when she learned about the state party scandal, she snapped at a journalist who reminded her she came into office as "the transparency governor," saying, "Get over it." Hours later, Perdue-who is not running for reelection-issued a statement saying she had heard rumors about the allegations in December, but referred the matter to Parker.
Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University, said the scandal likely wouldn't affect Obama's race in November, but said it is a "distraction" ahead of the convention and other events for the Democratic Party in North Carolina.
But if the scandal widens, national party leaders may feel pressure to speak out, especially if it casts doubts on the party's management and paints a lurid picture of the sexual conduct of those supporting the gay activists' agenda. In Raleigh, state Auditor Beth Wood joined four other top state officials in calling for Parker's resignation, and told the local newspaper she wasn't satisfied with how the party handled the scandal from the start: "If we want [voters] to believe in us and follow our lead we need to do a better job."
If Amendment One is defeated in North Carolina, much of the credit will have to go to Todd Stiefel.
Stiefel and his wife Diana gave a $100,000 matching grant to Protect North Carolina Families, the group fighting the proposed state constitutional amendment to protect legal marriage "as between one woman and one man."
The grant "was fully matched, and then some," Stiefel told me, and came at a critical time, helping to pay for highly effective-and some say highly misleading-TV ads. The Stiefels gave two $10,000 grants to Equality NC and the ACLU to aid email, social media, and other activities designed to defeat Amendment One.
Stiefel, 37, made his money the old-fashioned way: He inherited it. His great-great-grandfather started a candle and soap company in 1847 in Germany that became Stiefel Laboratories, which the Stiefel family sold to GlaxoSmithKline in 2009 for a reported $2.9 billion.
That's not to say Stiefel isn't a hard worker and a strategic thinker. Raised nominally Roman Catholic, he graduated from Duke University, where he says he lost his faith, then worked in the family business for a dozen years. With his share of the windfall, Stiefel became a "freethought activist," serving on the board of-and in 2010 giving $500,000 to-the Secular Coalition for America, a lobbying group that Stiefel told me is committed to "ending religious privilege."
Stiefel has also given major grants to American Atheists ($100,000) and the Secular Student Alliance ($50,000). In 2010 he gave $20,000 to the ACLU of Mississippi, which used the money to host a high school prom after a school district canceled its prom when a lesbian tried to bring her girlfriend as a date.
Whether he wins or loses the Amendment One battle, Stiefel's money and his affable style-"Ask me anything; I'm an open book," he said-are winning him access and influence. In 2010 he and other leaders of the Secular Coalition for America had a meeting with White House officials to try to "get the government out of faith-based activities."
Stiefel's donations to defeat Amendment One are a fraction of the $3 million opponents hope to raise, but his money primed the pump-attracting donations from around the nation and moving public opinion. Six months ago, 61 percent of North Carolina voters favored Amendment One. Today, that number has dropped to 54 percent. "This campaign is winnable," Stiefel said. "And we hope to win."