Now the Democratic presidential race comes to North Carolina — sort of.
While this was once seen as a possible make-it-or-break-it state in the Democratic presidential nomination fight, it seems increasingly likely that the candidates will be paying more attention to Indiana, which also holds its primary May 6.
The reason is that polls suggest that Indiana is competitive, while North Carolina is not.
Sen. Barack Obama holds a 16-point lead in North Carolina, and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has a two-point lead in Indiana, according to an average of polls compiled by the political Web site Real Clear Politics.
Clinton has announced plans to campaign in Indiana three of the next four days. She will be in North Carolina on Thursday, stumping in Jacksonville, Fayetteville and Asheville. Obama has yet to announce plans to return this week. But Tuesday night, Obama was in Evansville, Ind., with his wife, Michelle, at a campaign event featuring rock musician John Mellencamp.
North Carolina’s second-fiddle status is already evident. Obama and Clinton have each spent only one day in North Carolina this month. The state Democratic Party canceled a debate proposed for Raleigh on Sunday after Obama declined to participate.
A month ago, North Carolina looked like the bigger prize. It is the largest state to hold a primary after Tuesday’s Pennsylvania primary. North Carolina will award 115 pledged delegates, while Indiana will award 72.
But with Clinton finding it difficult to make inroads in the Tar Heel state, Indiana is shaping up as the bigger battleground.
“There is a pattern in the presidential campaign,” said Bill Carrick, a Los Angeles-based political strategist who managed Dick Gephardt’s 1988 presidential campaign. “Clinton has gotten into cherry-picking states. Some of it is driven by politics and some of it by finances.
“The Clinton campaign will do everything to downplay North Carolina because they don’t think they will do well. They will emphasize Indiana, where they think they will do better.”
Carrick said any diminishment of North Carolina by Clinton would be a gamble similar to her decision to de-emphasize the South Carolina primary in January — resulting in an Obama blowout that damaged her candidacy.
While the signs suggest that North Carolina’s importance is lessened, that doesn’t mean the candidates will not be campaigning here. Both are running TV ads in the state, and both have dozens of paid staffers and numerous storefront offices.
Obama and Clinton have agreed to appear at the Democrats’ Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner in Raleigh on May 2. Obama will be in Carrboro the same day, and Clinton will be in Charlotte on Monday.
“I think you are going to see a lot of them,” said Tad Devine, a Washington-based strategist who managed Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign. “Maybe not as much as Indiana. In North Carolina the breadth of victory will count.”
Andrew Taylor, an N.C. State University political science professor, said it is important for Clinton to win Indiana. He said it would further her argument to the unpledged superdelegates — likely to determine the nomination — that only she can win over blue-collar Reagan Democrats in an industrial state that will prove crucial in the fall campaign against John McCain.
An Obama win in North Carolina would not change the basic political calculus, Taylor said.
“What is going to happen in North Carolina is just going to confirm the Obama argument and not do anything to add to it,” Taylor said. “It’s not going to detract from Clinton. It’s a Southern state with a large black population. With the exception of Tennessee, neighboring states all have gone to Obama. He should win here.”
That’s why Obama and Clinton are more likely to be spending the next two weeks learning the lyrics of “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away” rather than “Carolina In My Mind.”
Guam — 4 delegates
North Carolina — 115 delegates
Indiana — 72 delegates
West Virginia — 28 delegates
Oregon — 52 delegates
Kentucky — 51 delegates
Puerto Rico — 55 delegates
Montana — 16 delegates
South Dakota — 15 delegates
(E-mail Rob Christensen at rob.Christensen(at)newsobserver.com)