CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Election eve in North Carolina had it all, entertainment, sports and the first lady. In a lineup that included the NBA’s Derek Fisher and diva Mariah Carey in a gown so form-fitting she needed an assist up the stairs to the microphone, it was Michelle Obama who closed the show on Monday as she asked the crowd, “Are we ready to work for this?”
In 2008, it was candidate Barack Obama making a last-minute North Carolina stop – an emotional speech at University of North Carolina at Charlotte that paid tribute to his grandmother, who died the day before his election. It was one of many appearances in a state perhaps only he was confident he could win. While this year he’s off to tighter battlegrounds higher on the list of must-wins, and polls, though tight, show a slight lean in challenger Mitt Romney’s direction here, a Tar Heel trifecta that started on Friday with Jill Biden, continued on Sunday with Bill Clinton and ended with the most popular member of the Obama family shows the president holds hope of a repeat.
On Monday, after emerging from a plane that taxied and halted movie-like beside the hangar and taking the stage in front of a giant American flag, Michelle Obama told the 4,500 crowded into a hangar at Charlotte Douglas International Airport to vote, volunteer and “get to that one person” who hasn’t made it to the polls. She reminded them that Obama’s narrow 14,000-vote win in North Carolina in 2008 amounted to just five votes per precinct. She said it would be even closer than the last time – “own that.”
The crowd shouted love and support and the occasional “hallelujah” as she talked about her husband’s accomplishments and plans for the economy, health care and education. “We’ve been making real and meaningful progress,” she said. And when it comes to women’s rights, she said, “We know that Barack will always have our backs.”
Michelle Obama is no stranger here. She’s been a major draw at colleges and universities and co-starred with North Carolina-raised singer-songwriter James Taylor at fundraisers. Monday was her first time back in Charlotte since her Democratic National Convention moment in September. Her voice lowered and the crowd grew silent on Monday when she got personal about “this man,” who “knows the American dream because he’s lived it.” She called the president “a man whose courage and integrity we have seen every day for the past four years.”
The first lady has the gift of praising Obama without mentioning his challenger by name, but she stepped up to the line when she talked of the first couple’s belief “that the truth matters.” In America, she said, teachers and firefighters should not have to pay higher taxes than millionaires and billionaires. “You know what I’m talking about.”
Mariah Carey, known more for high notes and blockbuster sales than political commentary, had to fend off an admirer shouting her name during her opening remarks. She shared the story that the Obamas were the first to know she was pregnant with twins when she whispered the news to them at an event. The president, she said, “has such strong women around him,” and he fights for them every day. The Obama campaign hasn’t minded the criticism of piling on the star power in North Carolina – from Russell Simmons to Alicia Keyes — if it helps energize young and urban voters.
In record early voting, from Oct. 18 through Nov. 3, registered Democrats retained a lead, though Republicans turned out in force as well. In 2008, Obama banked enough early votes to overcome John McCain’s Election Day edge. The number of unaffiliated voters casting early ballots also increased. According to the Obama campaign, volunteers have scheduled more than 11,000 individual shifts for Tuesday’s get-out-the-vote effort.
Romney supporters say enthusiasm is on their side, and – perhaps in a show of confidence or to steer resources to bigger state prizes — no high-profile GOP surrogates included North Carolina on their weekend agendas.
Linda Bain, a retired New York City educator, has spent the last few months in Charlotte – where she has friends and relatives — registering voters in strip malls and phone banking for the Obama campaign. She missed Hurricane Sandy’s sweep through her hometown, and appreciated the first lady’s opening remarks of concern and pledge of help. “The government plays a major, major role” in “restoring people’s lives,” Bain said, and FEMA has to be a priority.
“The president has so much more to offer our country,” said Bain, who was seeing Michelle Obama in person for the first time. “She’s bright, she’s personable and she loves this country. She loves connecting with people.” Bain didn’t have such kind words for GOP politicians who have offered opinions on “legitimate” rape and restrictions on women’s health policies. “They need to be reminded that they were born of women” she said.
Eighteen-month-old Gwendolyn Helton-Theriot paid less attention to the first lady than women in the crowd who took turns holding her and making her laugh. Her father, Rick Theriot, who appreciated the help, said of Michelle Obama, “She rocks!” When Theriot complimented President Obama — “He stands for equality” — his wife, Crystal Helton, added, “And women’s rights.
“It’s my reproductive system, and it’s between me, my God and my husband.” She called Michelle Obama “a strong, smart woman and a great inspiration for lower-income people who think you can’t get an education; she’s proof you can.” Helton said she and her husband have stopped trying to convince the Republicans surrounding them in their Belmont, N.C., neighborhood to vote for Obama. “”Honestly,” Helton said, “it’s because he’s black … and they don’t think he’s American.”
Standing nearby, Bessie Rhodes of Gastonia lamented that kind of sentiment, but proudly showed off a picture of her great-grandson Barack Norris. Rhodes, a retired tire plant worker – “union, for Obama” – said Barack Norris will turn 4 on Nov. 14. “He’s smart like Obama,” she said. She’s hoping that his birthday celebration will also mark the reelection of the president he was named for in 2008, and that Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx (D) is right in his feeling that, as he said on Monday, North Carolina will “shock the world again.”
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3