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Veteran N.C. Political Strategists See Obama Path To Winning Tar Heel State

President Obama walks onto the stage before speaking at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill on April 24.
Gerry Broome
President Obama walks onto the stage before speaking at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill on April 24.

If you want to understand how the White House race will play out in North Carolina as we enter the convention phase, talking to Carter Wrenn, a Republican, and Gary Pearce, a Democrat, is a good start.

The two veteran political strategists have, over decades, been involved in many a Tar Heel campaign.

Long-time North Carolina Republican political strategist Carter Wrenn senses President Obama may have the momentum in the Tar Heel state.
Frank James / NPR
Long-time North Carolina Republican political strategist Carter Wrenn senses President Obama may have the momentum in the Tar Heel state.

One of Wrenn's best known clients was Jesse Helms, the late North Carolina senator renowned for both his surliness and race baiting.

Pearce was a long-time strategist for one of North Carolina's most popular governors, Jim Hunt.

Wrenn and Pearce jointly write a consistently entertaining state politics blog, . The men first met in 1984 during debate negotiations for the Helms-Hunt Senate race. Pearce's candidate lost.

During a recent visit to North Carolina, the host of this year's Democratic National Convention, It's All Politics spoke with them to get their takes on how the race between President Obama and Mitt Romney is shaping up in the state.

North Carolina is a state both presidential campaigns badly want to win. On balance, the state is probably more critical to Romney's White House hopes than Obama's. The president has a path to the required 270 electoral votes without North Carolina. Romney? Not so much.

At his office in Raleigh, the state capital, Wrenn said his sense is that Obama now has an edge in a state that has gone red in presidential elections since 1976, with just one exception: Obama won the state four years ago by a mere 14,000 votes.

But since then, Republicans have reasserted themselves, taking over the statehouse in 2010. Meanwhile, Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue, who rode the same Democratic surge as Obama into office, became so unpopular, she eschewed running for re-election.

Because of the Legislature shift and its conservative tendencies, some analysts view the state as more likely a Romney state than a toss-up.

But it's far from certain Romney will win it.

Wrenn said:

"My friends can't imagine Obama beating Romney in North Carolina. And that's basically true in the Republican Party right now. [Republicans] had a huge win in 2010. And Obama's been unpopular [in the state] for most of his presidency.

"So in that world that I move in all I hear is 'Obama can't win.' But when I move into the world of polling and experience, maybe, I say 'This is overconfidence. This is getting carried away. When you look at the polling data, it all says 'close election.' And when I look at the two campaigns, Romney's and Obama's, my experience says that Obama has got a little more momentum and that he's sort of found his groove. You know, campaigns search a long time to find their groove. I think Obama's found his, and I think Romney is still searching for it."

"Obama's found what his campaign's about. It's the middle-class issue really. You get right down to the guts of his message and it's that 'I'm going to fight for the middle class and Romney's representing the wealthy. ' "

Even in a state like North Carolina, which is as politically polarized as any — maybe more so — Wrenn said, that's a message that speaks to many voters, including independents. It could likely help Obama shift into his column the small number of North Carolina voters who are still persuadable.

Wrenn said to think like a pollster about the race in North Carolina. Democrats are 42 percent of the state's registered voters, Republicans 33 percent and independents 25 percent.

Of course, Obama won't get that full 42 percent of the electorate that are Democrats, Wrenn said. Instead, based on the latest polling he has seen, he gives Obama about 36 percent and Romney 6 percent of voters in that category. That 6 percent represents mostly older, rural white men, formerly Jessecrats (think Helms) of the "It will be a cold day in hell before I vote for Obama" variety.

Mortality has caught up with those old Jessecrats as has demographic shifts in the state's population as transplants, including retirees and young professionals, move in from other states and the Hispanic population grows.

Of the 33 percent of the state's voters who are Republicans, Romney has nearly all of them, about 30 percent of the electorate, while Obama gets the remaining 3 percent.

That leaves independents. Give Romney 12 percent of the electorate to Obama's 8 percent of the electorate that fits into that category. That leaves 5 percent of the electorate up for grabs, voters who are both independent and undecided.

It might be a little more, however, since some independents now leaning toward Obama or Romney could still be persuaded to switch.

Wrenn says Romney has had an advantage with these North Carolina independents; they had a low opinion of Obama's job performance.

But the president's middle class, Medicare and abortion messages are aimed squarely at these independents and he's making some headway with them, from what Wrenn can tell, because these voters mostly agree with the president on those issues.

Pointing to the column for independent voters on his sheet of paper, Wrenn says:

"What the vice presidential [Paul] Ryan thing does is it's going to create a much better debate in the presidential campaign, but it's going to be a hard debate for Romney to win with those voters. So I think that can help Obama. All these margins are so narrow, that if he gains 10 percent with independents, that's the game."

Pearce, the Democrat, is upbeat about the position Democrats find themselves in.

"It's great to be a battleground state because for so many years we didn't particularly count. And it's great for Democrats. It's obviously a tough state for Obama to win. But he can win. And in my view he wins just by forcing Romney to fight here. He's fighting in Romney's end of the field.

"If Obama wins North Carolina, there's no way he doesn't get re-elected. And conversely, if Romney doesn't win North Carolina, there's no way he can get to the White House."

As is true elsewhere, in North Carolina it's been a challenge for Obama to recapture the lightning in a bottle of his historic 2008 candidacy. But don't mistake that for a lack of urgency or energy, says Pearce.

"It's obviously a different atmosphere. Obama was new, the election was a referendum on Bush in many ways and [Sen. John] McCain was a pretty weak candidate. The dynamic is very different.

"So there may not be the idealism and enthusiasm that there was four years ago but I think on the Democratic side, there's damn sure a desire to re-elect Obama and a real resistance to Romney and Republicans and what everybody sees as a hard right turn by the Republicans. That's all energizing by itself. It's a different energy. It's a different source. But energy is energy and it's there."

Pearce also has seen no evidence that the Obama campaign has lost any of its 2008 mastery of the ground game — identifying unregistered voters and getting them on the rolls and to the polls. Far from it.

"I was never a big ground game person. I was a message medium person. But the Obama people have proven that ground game can work. And they have invested one hell of a lot of money in it. They've got a lot of people working. Lot of young people.

"There's still a big pool of African-American voters. There's increasing numbers of Hispanic voters. And, by definition, there's a whole new crop of college students across the state. So I don't underestimate the hidden power of their ability to reshape the electorate. That's how they won four years ago; they turned out thousands of new voters. And I wouldn't underestimate his ability to do it again."

Pearce observes that Obama has offices in rural towns across the state, in places like tiny Louisburg, population 3,382 in 2011. Nearly 40 percent of the population is African-American. Their rate of voter registrations traditionally lagged behind their white neighbors.

Thus, Obama has, relatively speaking, more voters he can tap than does Romney.

"That's the thing. He can do something Romney can't. There's a deep well of voters out there for Obama."

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Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.