Clinton's Hopes May Lie With N.C.

A campaign chief for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, here speaking at Methodist University in Fayetteville, N.C., said a win would be "the upset of the century."
A campaign chief for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, here speaking at Methodist University in Fayetteville, N.C., said a win would be "the upset of the century." (By Marc Hall -- Fayetteville Observer)
By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 25, 2008

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C., April 24 -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton on Thursday emphasized her plans to remove combat troops from Iraq and challenged Sen. Barack Obama to a debate in North Carolina, as she turned her attention to a state that could upend her hopes of a comeback.

Standing with a group of military supporters, including North Carolina native and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Hugh Shelton, Clinton said at a stop here that "I am going to win the war in Afghanistan and end the war in Iraq."

She also repeated her challenge to Obama to debate her in this state, after the senator from Illinois would not commit to a previously scheduled one. "I've said I will debate anytime, anywhere," Clinton told a crowd of several hundred in Fayetteville. "I think you deserve your own debate."

North Carolina, with its large African American population, has long been seen as a firewall for Obama after contests in Ohio, Pennsylvania and elsewhere that favored Clinton. A win here and in Indiana, which also votes May 6, could cement his status as the front-runner.

If Clinton wins in Indiana and is able to score an upset, or even lose by a small margin, in North Carolina, her comeback would probably gain fresh momentum. A lopsided Clinton loss would essentially negate any recent gains she has made in delegates, in the nationwide popular vote and in persuading superdelegates to support her.

"They're going to try to win in Indiana and close like crazy in North Carolina," said Joe Trippi, who was a top adviser to the campaign of former North Carolina senator John Edwards before he dropped out of the race. Edwards has not endorsed either candidate, despite repeated entreaties from both.

Obama and Clinton have campaigned heavily in Indiana, where the race is expected to be close because of its proximity to Obama's Chicago home and its large number of white working-class voters, who have backed Clinton in other states.

They have spent less time in North Carolina, and as the race has shifted here both campaigns have sought to lower expectations.

"This is an uphill climb. To win here would be the upset of the century," said Averell "Ace" Smith, director of Clinton's North Carolina campaign.

Craig Schirmer, who is managing Obama's campaign here, said, "It's a competitive state, and I think it's a state that will grow more competitive in the next two weeks and probably be decided in the single digits."

With more than a third of primary voters expected to be African American, the state's demographics favor Obama, who has won throughout the South by gaining huge majorities of the black vote. If Obama again dominates among blacks, Clinton would have to win more than two-thirds of white voters to triumph. She has done that before in the South -- in Mississippi, where she still lost, and Tennessee, where she won.

Clinton aides said their strategy, as in other states, will be to try to dominate in rural areas and perform well among women in the state's three large urban areas, around Raleigh, Charlotte and Winston-Salem, which are likely to lean toward Obama.

Aside from blunting momentum, a loss in North Carolina, the nation's 10th-largest state, would weaken Clinton's argument that she dominates the big states. Clinton has won five of the 10 most populous states and outpolled her opponents in unsanctioned contests in Florida and Michigan, where Obama was not on the ballot. Obama has won only his home state of Illinois and Georgia among the 10 largest states.

Clinton advisers are publicly playing down any chance of victory, but political observers in North Carolina point to several signs of an aggressive effort. To manage her campaign in the state, Clinton installed Smith, one of her top operatives, who led victories in California and Texas. The day after the Pennsylvania primary, former president Bill Clinton made several stops in small communities in the state.

"He's their top primary manager," Trippi said of Smith. "They didn't send Ace Smith if they weren't going to try to compete."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company