Two weeks from now, North Carolina will hold a public referendum on what could become one of the toughest anti-gay measures in the country: a far-reaching proposal to amend the state constitution to ban civil unions and domestic partnerships. But President Obama did not touch the subject when he appeared in Chapel Hill on Tuesday — even though it is roiling the electorate there.
Instead, Obama talked about college loans, kicking off a two-day, three-state tour designed to energize the youth vote. His delicate sidestep of Amendment One, a ballot initiative to be decided May 8 that would recognize marriage between a man and a woman as the only legal domestic partnership in North Carolina, is seen by some as another sign that he is not fully committed to gay rights — an interpretation that could dampen the enthusiasm of the young voters he is trying to court.
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“It’s a little bit of a missed opportunity,” said Josh Orol, 20, a sophomore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a leader of a campus movement to defeat Amendment One. “I didn’t expect him to talk at length about it. I know he has come out publicly against it. But I sort of hoped he would at least name-drop a little bit. It’s disappointing.”
The issue is particularly complicated in historically conservative North Carolina. Obama scraped together a razor-thin victory there four years ago with a multicultural coalition that included independents, African Americans and Hispanics — constituencies that are less uniformly enthusiastic about expanding gay rights than campus activists.
North Carolina is widely seen as a bigger challenge this year for Obama than it was in 2008, when he won with a margin of roughly 14,000 votes. Not only does the state’s unemployment rate continue to hover near 10 percent, but its Democratic Party is in disarray and is expected to be of little help to president: The Democratic governor, Beverly Perdue, is not popular and decided not seek reelection this year. The trial of embattled one-time presidential contender John Edwards began this week. And the state party organization is being rocked by a scandal, with its executive director forced out over sexual-harassment allegations.
None of these challenges have stopped Obama from planting a flag in North Carolina, as he did by deciding to hold his party’s national convention in Charlotte this year. His campaign has opened more than a dozen offices around the state. In fact, Obama’s grass-roots organization never really dismantled four years ago — and actually as grown since then, state campaign officials said.
“The truth is, the real organization down here, the real powerhouse organization, is the Obama organization,” said Democratic operative Gary Pearce, a longtime aide for former governor Jim Hunt. “It was always expected that it was going to be up to the Obama campaign to take the lead here.”
It will also be up to Obama to navigate the political crosscurrents of a complicated state in which he must court multiple constituencies that do not all agree on all the same issues.