CHARLOTTE, N.C. – This election season, North Carolina is almost as cool – or as hot — as Ohio. While it’s true President Obama and his GOP challenger Mitt Romney are crisscrossing the Buckeye state so often, I expect their campaign buses to have an awkward fender bender any day now, North Carolina is no slouch when it comes to attracting high profile surrogates, celebrities and family members.
The Southern state woke up both parties in 2008, when by a slim margin it voted for Barack Obama, the first time a Democrat had won the state since 1976 and Jimmy Carter – and he was a southerner. Once tantalized, the Democrats have fought to make the shaky switch permanent, even setting the party’s national convention in Charlotte. Republicans, convinced 2008 was an aberration that happened because they weren’t paying attention, have fought back. Reliably red South Carolina next door can only gaze over the border with envy and send campaigners here to hit the streets where it might make a difference.
Friday was a typical political day, starting in the morning with Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D), whose rousing speech was a hit at the Democratic convention, tag-teaming with Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx at an Organizing for America field office in downtown Charlotte.
As someone who fills the job once held by Romney, he is in a position to critique and criticize, which he did enthusiastically. “Gov. Romney has no growth strategy,” Patrick said. “What he has is a string of sound bites and slogans masquerading as a plan.” He derided what he said were Romney’s cuts to education in the state and the GOP candidate’s “ideological opposition to stem-cell research” that stymied innovation. He said Romney “doesn’t understand what our president does, that we have a generational responsibility.”
Patrick praised what he called the president’s investments in education, innovation and infrastructure. “It’s a winning strategy, it has delivered results, and with a congress that will cooperate in a much more resolute second term, I think we will see those results accelerate,” he said. “It is precisely the strategy we have pursued at home in Massachusetts with the help of the Obama administration.”
After thanking campaign volunteers, Patrick stressed the importance of North Carolina and also commented on the tight Senate race in his home state between GOP Sen. Scott Brown and Democrat Elizabeth Warren. Brown “has not reliably voted in the interests of the people of Massachusetts,” Patrick said, “but he is a very, very skilled campaigner. … We are a discerning electorate at home in Massachusetts. Facts matter.”
Volunteer Liz Crowther called the governor “an impressive individual,” and speaking of Patrick and Foxx and their future political possibilities, asked, “Don’t we want them to be up there in 2016?” Women’s health issues are important to Crowther, a Planned Parenthood supporter who has two daughters. Ann Smith, a Charlotte small business owner, said, “I can’t believe we’re talking about abortion and birth control again.” Both women said volunteers have to be positive and get the message out. “Governor Patrick helped a lot,” said Crowther.
Late in the afternoon, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) made a stop at a Romney/Ryan Charlotte Victory Office on a similar task, to encourage the volunteers who are manning the phone lines and tracking down GOP voters. The atmosphere was just as upbeat, with a different outcome in mind, of course.
Outside the office, a crowd of more than 100 listened as a parade of North Carolina Republican candidates preceded Boehner – on day 20 of a 45-day trip, he said — who had made a stop with Romney in Asheville the day before. Patrick McHenry, congressman from North Carolina’s 10th district, had kind words for Thursday’s enthusiastic crowd in Asheville, the western North Carolina town known more for its arts scene and laid-back style. But he did not approve of Vice President Biden’s energetic defense of Obama administration policies in his debate with Congressman Paul Ryan. McHenry called him “Red Bull Joe,” and said, “Imagine if a Republican did that. Imagine the press.”
With redrawn district lines after Republicans won control of the state legislature in 2010, prospects look good for N.C. Republicans hoping to join McHenry in congress. One of them, Richard Hudson, who is looking to defeat Blue Dog Democrat Larry Kissell, introduced Boehner.
“We’ve got a guy in the White House who just doesn’t get it,” Boehner said, emphasizing the economy. “I’ve worked closely with the president over the last couple of years trying to find common ground. Unfortunately the president just doesn’t understand our economy, never had a real job, never done anything, and as a result we’ve not been able to move the ball ahead.”
“Mitt Romney understands how to create jobs, and he understands what big government can do to destroy jobs in our country,” he said.
Jerry Schmitt, 73, a retired Charlotte banker let out a little cheer when Boehner said, “Let America be America.” Schmitt, who said of Romney, “He believes the private sector is much more efficient,” cautiously predicts his candidate will take North Carolina. “The enthusiasm is on the Republican side right now.”
Desiree Zapata Miller, who works with Hispanic outreach as a volunteer, told me she believes Republicans are becoming “more purposeful” as they try to attract the votes of a group that is favoring Obama by a three-to-one margin. For the unemployed Miller, who works with nonprofits, the issue is the economy. “We’re at a critical place where it’s not even just about two candidates.”
Pat Hoekstra, a retired registered nurse, said she wants to see more job growth, but there’s another reason she told me she “totally supports” the Romney/Ryan ticket. President Obama “is supposed to be our leader, he should be creating peace,” she said. “The last three years there’s been a lot of animosity.” What exactly did she mean? I asked. She said she didn’t want to go into it.
Even though Raleigh was the next stop on both the Patrick and Boehner itineraries, there seems to be no common ground or let up in the star-studded battle for North Carolina.
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