Preparations for the Democratic National Convention are humming along in this model city of the New South. But unlike their Republican counterparts in Tampa, Democratic organizers have a nagging distraction: constant second-guessing about the decision to put their convention in North Carolina.
Prominent union leaders decried rewarding the state, one of the nation's least friendly to organized labor. Major unions announced they would not help fund the event. In 2008, labor groups contributed more than $8 million to the Democratic Convention in Denver.
Then came North Carolina's vote last month to ban gay marriage. More than 28,000 people signed a petition to move the convention from Charlotte because of that vote, something that has no chance of happening.
Meanwhile, pundits have become increasingly skeptical about President Barack Obama's Tarheel State prospects. Just look at the trends: A Democratic governor, Beverly Perdue, so unpopular she opted not to seek a second term; Republicans taking control of the legislature for the first time in more than a century; a state Democratic Party in turmoil after its executive director resigned in a sexual harassment scandal and its beleaguered chairman refused calls to quit.
Not to mention John Edwards' former mistress, Charlotte resident Rielle Hunter, has a tell-all book coming out and presumably will be happy to chat with reporters in town for the big show. Or that Obama will accept the nomination Sept. 6 in the Bank of America Stadium, named after an institution that received a $45 billion bailout.
So did the Obama team blow it by picking Charlotte for their convention?
It's hard to find Democrats optimistic about Obama's prospects here, even with the latest poll by the Raleigh-based Democratic firm Public Policy Polling showing a neck-and-neck race: 48 percent of voters for Mitt Romney and 46 percent for Obama. But every dollar Romney spends competing for North Carolina is good news for the president's re-election.
"As long as reporters are calling me and asking whether Obama can win North Carolina, he's winning the presidential campaign — because if Romney has to fight for North Carolina, he's in trouble," said Democratic consultant Gary Pearce, who advised former North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt.
Indeed,Obama can afford to lose North Carolina; Romney can't.
Romney's path to victory requires him to win back states that voted for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 and then went for Obama in 2008. Those include Florida, Virginia and North Carolina.
"That wasn't so much a vote for Obama last time as it was a vote against Bush," said Republican strategist Carter Wrenn. "The swing voters were almost completely negative on Bush — and intensely negative. Right now, though, North Carolina doesn't look particularly hospitable to Obama's re-election or to Democrats in general."
North Carolina has long been a state of complex and contradictory politics, an often uneasy mix of urban and rural interests. Until very recently it was in some respects a Democratic stronghold — consistently electing Democratic governors and state officeholders, even while it voted Republican in every presidential race since 1968, except for when Jimmy Carter won in 1976.
Its renowned progressive streak, fueled by leaders of business, its top-tier universities and venerable newspapers like the News & Observer in Raleigh and the Charlotte Observer, spurred strong public investment in education, infrastructure and the arts. At the same time, North Carolinians elected archconservative Jesse Helms to five terms in the U.S. Senate.
"The demographics have changed a lot in the state," said Wrenn, a former Helms adviser, noting the exploding growth in areas like Raleigh-Durham. "It's no longer a state where anybody is liable to blow out an election and get 60 percent of the vote like used to happen. It's much more evenly divided."
Bush twice won the state by at least 12 percentage points, even when former North Carolina Sen. Edwards was on the Democratic ticket in 2004. Four years ago, John McCain assumed North Carolina was a lock and spent resources elsewhere.
The Obama campaign focused intensely on the state, both in his primary against Hillary Rodham Clinton and the general election, targeting young voters, African-Americans and highly educated professionals. Campaign organizers took full advantage of a 2007 early voting law allowing North Carolinians to register to vote and cast their ballots on the same day.
Obama wound up winning the state by about 14,000 votes, less than half a percentage point of the 4.3 million votes cast. It was so close that the state's 15 electoral votes weren't even called for Obama until two days after he gave his victory speech in Chicago's Grant Park.
He pulled it off by expanding the electorate. Overwhelmingly Democratic African-Americans accounted for more than 22 percent of all votes cast — a huge increase from the typical elections of about 18 percent.
He won about 40 percent of the unaffiliated voters and 40 percent of white women."The keys for the president are reaching out and touching and communicating with independent voters and making sure he can pull white females,'' said Democratic consultant Brad Crone. "Clearly the president has a mountain to climb. The state's going to be competitive, but he faces quite a different landscape than he did four year ago."
In 1994, downtown Charlotte was so dead that locals had to create a fake, temporary entertainment district to entertain fans in town for the NCAA men's basketball Final Four. Today, "Uptown" Charlotte is bustling with people, bars and restaurants throughout the day and night — far more than Tampa.
To Democrats, though, that's not the main distinction between the Republican and Democratic conventions. While there is little historical evidence that a convention can tip the host state to that party's candidate, Democrats are counting on Charlotte to give Obama an extra edge here.
The campaign treats the convention not only as a showcase for Obama and his message, but also as an important organizing tool. When he delivered his acceptance speech before 75,000 people at Invesco Field in Denver four years ago, the campaign recruited 25,000 volunteers to help deliver Colorado.
Unlike the Tampa convention, where events so far have been private, invitation-only affairs, the Democrats are encouraging participation by as many members of the public as possible. Hundreds of local students attended a "Kids Convention," for instance, and 2,000 people showed up for a year-out party.
The GOP host committee's opening party, expected to be at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, will be private, while Democrats are kicking things off with a public Labor Day family fun festival at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. Likewise, the public is invited to the final night of the convention to see Obama at the 74,000-seat Bank of America Stadium.
It's all aimed at engaging and organizing as many Obama supporters as possible, not only in North Carolina but also in neighboring Virginia, another critical battleground.
To hear many tell it, Obama will need every push he can muster to carry this state again.
"To be honest, four years ago was the first time I ever voted. I was so excited, felt so powerful," said 26-year-old Dominique Johnson of Charlotte. "Now it's kind of like I'm lost. I'm not getting him anymore. It's like, 'Where are you Obama? What are you doing? Where are the jobs?' "
Johnson has been looking for a full-time job for two years, not uncommon in this state with the fourth-highest unemployment rate, 9.4 percent.
"In my community, the African-American community, people are so hungry looking for employment, they're like lions after prey," she said. "Whatever his campaign can bring they better bring stronger than last time, because a lot of people now are looking at him like he hasn't delivered. Where are the jobs?"
No one has done more to turn Charlotte into a financial center than retired banker Hugh McColl Jr., a gruff ex-Marine who grew a small, regional bank into a national powerhouse, Bank of America.
A Democrat (and mentor to former Florida gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink), McColl vocally supported Obama four years ago. He is an honorary co-chairman of the Charlotte convention, but in April McColl hosted a fundraiser for Romney, saying he preferred him as the Republican nominee.
And who will he vote for in November?
"I don't think that's anybody's business but mine," McColl growled in a phone interview.
Has Obama helped or hurt the economy? McColl, blaming the press for denigrating the banking industry, noted that corporate profits are fine, as the stock market has fared relatively well under Obama.
"The real place we haven't been successful is job creation. I don't know that that's the president's fault," he said.
That McColl is not necessarily backing Obama speaks volumes about the president's challenge in the state. Likewise, many Tarheel political observers took note when Julia Daniels, a civic leader and wife of former News & Observer publisher Frank Daniels Jr., signed on as a co-chairwoman of Romney's North Carolina finance committee.
"I'm concerned about the lack of enthusiasm for Obama. I hear that from people who were for Obama last time and they're going to be for him again, but it's because they're against Romney at least as much as for Obama. That's not a good sign," said Frank Daniels, who is backing Obama. "I don't know that North Carolina will be that much of a battleground this time. I'm just not real comfortable that Obama's going be able to overcome the negative push against him. It's doable, but I don't think it's likely."
Both campaigns are spending millions of dollars on campaign ads, and Romney has four campaign offices open, about a quarter as many as Obama. The South Carolina GOP, meanwhile, has committed to send at least 1,000 volunteers to North Carolina to help beat Obama.
When Democrats picked Charlotte for their convention (over Cleveland, Minneapolis and St. Louis), they blasted out an email statement from Michelle Obama hailing the Queen City for its hard-working, bighearted spirit — "and great barbecue."
Charlotte has plenty to boast about, but nobody associates it with excellent barbecue. Drive 160 miles east into Goldsboro and you'll find Wilber's Barbecue, which many people claim to be the world's greatest.
"Obama won't win North Carolina, but I think he will the election," said owner Wilber Shirley, a onetime county Democratic chairman.
He believes Obama hurt himself in North Carolina by supporting same-sex marriage, but all it takes is a few conversations with the customers to see Obama's challenge in the state. They sound like focus groups for Rush Limbaugh "ditto-heads."
"He's the sorriest president in the history of the United States," said businessman Jeff Darwin. "And the lyingest president. Every time he says something, FOX News shows what a lie it is."
And the convention? "I wish they'd move it," chimed in Max Best. "As a lifelong citizen of North Carolina, I don't even like having him in my state."
Enjoy the Southern hospitality, Mr. President.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]