Sen. John Edwards returned home Friday to North Carolina, where he was greeted by thousands of boisterous supporters at the state fairgrounds here and cast an early vote for the Kerry-Edwards ticket.
If polls are any indication, however, Edwards will be among the minority to have voted Democratic once all the ballots are tallied in North Carolina on Tuesday.
As a candidate for the Democratic nomination, Edwards repeatedly boasted that "the South is my back yard," and after Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) picked him as his running mate in July, the ticket made strong overtures in the Tar Heel State.
Kerry visited the state three times, and up until mid-September, Edwards was here almost weekly. The campaign and the Democratic National Committee invested about $2.5 million in advertising, prompting President Bush to counter with ads in a state that he won by 13 percentage points in 2000.
But in September, the ads disappeared, and Friday's visit was Edwards's first in three weeks to the state. "They really sort of abandoned North Carolina about a month ago," said Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. "I think they understand that there are easier scenarios for getting to 270 [electoral votes]. Clearly, Edwards has made a difference, but not enough of a difference to push the state to the Kerry column."
Recent polls have put Bush's lead at six to 10 percentage points in North Carolina -- a closer margin for the Democrats than four years ago but not close enough to put the state on anyone's list of battleground states.
Harrison Hickman who was Edwards pollster for his 1998 Senate race and his presidential bid, said the immediate narrowing of the race in the state to within a few points after Edwards was selected resulted from what he called a "burst of affection" -- a phenomenon that has precedent.
In 1988, after Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis added Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas to the ticket, Texas briefly appeared competitive for the Democrats. Then-Vice President George H.W. Bush carried the state by 13 percentage points, however.
As Hickman put it: "Most people go out and vote for president."
North Carolina offers a robust 15 electoral votes. Democratic campaign officials here insist they have not written off the state, citing an expansive ground operation and the 7,000 that attended Friday night's rally, which featured rock star Jon Bon Jovi.
Edwards took the stage with his wife and three children to screeches so deafening that his youngest child, Jack, 4, covered his ears. Edwards said he had not come to give a political speech. "I came to say 'thank you' to all of you," Edwards said. "North Carolina is who I am, and I will always be proud."
Kerry-Edwards strategist Tad Devine said the campaign remains "hopeful" about North Carolina but acknowledged it has been realistic about where it targets its resources. "Our feeling is if we win the places we're ahead in, we're going to win the election," Devine said.
Since Edwards's last appearance in the state, his itinerary has included 14 stops in Florida, 11 in Iowa, eight in Ohio and five in Wisconsin -- all states that could go either way Tuesday.
The last time North Carolina voted for a Democratic presidential candidate was 1976, when Jimmy Carter of nearby Georgia ran. Bill Clinton came close in 1992, losing to President George H.W. Bush by less than one percentage point in a race that also included Ross Perot.
In more recent years, North Carolina has been battered by job losses, particularly in the textile industry. That would seemingly present the Democrats with an opportunity, but analysts say the state remains a hard sell on social issues, including abortion and gay rights.
"They were working against a pretty strong headwind here," Taylor said. "Edwards is battling, too, against the top of the ticket, who many see as too liberal down here."