RALEIGH, NORTH CAROLINA -- John Edwards' sins aren't the only headline boosting North Carolina into the national spotlight. Barack Obama is angling to win this perennially red state, along with a number of others once thought securely Republican. Why's that significant? Because a victory here would break the GOP's monopoly on the Southeast, causing a rift in the Electoral College that McCain would be hard pressed to overcome.
That possibility is too tempting for Obama to resist. He's setting up shop in North Carolina -- nearly two-dozen shops, to be precise, in the form of regional field offices. Compare that to McCain's nine "victory offices" and you get a sense of how committed the Illinois senator is to putting the state in play.
And in play it is. The Cook Political report puts North Carolina, and its 15 electoral votes, in the "toss up" category. Obama is spending time and money here. He's dropped $2 million on ads. He devoted part of the week leading up to the Democratic National Convention to campaigning in Raleigh when he could have been in a number of other battleground regions.
His North Carolina campaign director, Marc Farinella, went so far as to call the state "fertile territory" for the Obama movement.
SKEPTICS WILL SAY Obama is bluffing. He's not serious about winning, but he's got money to burn, so why not put McCain on the defensive in a consistently Republican state?
That's part of his rationale, no doubt. But only part. To judge by his campaign strategy, Obama really thinks he can win here, and he's betting on some Tar Heel-specific attributes to get him there.
One of those is the fickleness of the state's electorate. That's not a bad crapshoot. After all, North Carolinians elected the conservative mainstay Jesse Helms to the Senate three decades in a row but sent the liberal populist (and now disgraced) Edwards to join him in 1998. They've put just three Republicans in the governor's mansion since Reconstruction, but the GOP has an eight-to-seven advantage in the state's congressional delegation, and two of those Democrats are in the conservative-leaning Blue Dog Coalition.
In presidential politics, North Carolina hasn't gone for a Democrat since Jimmy Carter won here in 1976. The margins were closer when Bill Clinton was on the ticket, but still enough to edge the state into the GOP win column. President Bush won by comfortable margins in 2000 and 2004. Yet July and August poll numbers put McCain and Obama in a virtual dead heat with the Arizona senator holding a slight lead.
The latest polling shows that this is a different election year. The electoral landscape has changed during Bush's two terms, and high gas prices, an unpopular war, the (unfounded) perception of economic recession, and Obama's (supposed) charisma haven't helped the equation for Republicans.
AND THEN THERE'S another factor: the black vote. Dr. Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, told me that Obama's play for Tar Heel votes is based fundamentally on African-Americans.
"A significant proportion of the voting age population is black," Taylor said. "Obama is a turnout machine, and blacks will be motivated to register and get to the polls."
That's one angle that must have GOP strategists worried. Voter registration among blacks is up 9.8 percent from 2004, compared to 4.6 among whites. Obama's big win in North Carolina's primary in May was bolstered by a record turnout in the black community.
The demographics of the state are also changing, and the news isn't good for Republicans. People are flocking to Sunbelt states in significant numbers, and North Carolina seems to be one of their top picks. In 2006, The Census Bureau listed North Carolina as the seventh fastest growing state in the nation, and growth has been particularly strong in metros like Raleigh and Charlotte, areas that typically send liberals to state and federal office.
Of course, there are factors working against Obama, too. North Carolina is still in the Bible Belt and has many evangelicals. The state is viewed as one of the most military-friendly in the nation, and with good reason: It has over a half-a-dozen active military installations and 750,000 military personnel now living in civilian life.
THE $64,000 QUESTION is whether winning North Carolina would be significant enough to put Obama in the oval office. Taylor says that a Tar Heel win would mean a significant nationwide victory for Obama.
"It would indicate a big win in the Electoral College rather than it being a close election in which he needs North Carolina to get him over the line," Taylor said.
At the same time, the close poll numbers have to give McCain pause. The tight race here shows that McCain can't take the state for granted, which he appears to be doing. He's run no ads specific to the state, and his campaign presence is half that of Obama's. He's visited only once since the close of the primary season: a private meeting with Billy and Franklin Graham. That won't cut it.
Obama, for one, doesn't mince words on the importance of the state. "I'm going to need to win North Carolina," he told a crowd of supporters in Raleigh last Tuesday.
McCain needs to recognize what Obama acknowledged months ago: North Carolina has become a battleground.