CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Weeks before the final tally, is North Carolina settled in the presidential election? After confirming reports that they pulled some resources out of the state to concentrate on more hotly contested battlegrounds, Republicans have shown no signs of closing up shop or cutting back on get-out-the vote events. Doubtful Democrats – touting a strong ground game — say the GOP announcement, coming coincidentally on the first day of early voting in North Carolina, may be a bit of gamesmanship, an effort to depress the Democratic vote and President Obama’s supporters, and make them give up before it’s over.

When Democratic strategist Paul Begala, an adviser to the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action, said on CNN on Monday that “it looks like Governor Romney is likely to carry North Carolina,” the Obama campaign’s Southern Regional press secretary, Addie Whisenant, quickly responded it was “in no way giving up on North Carolina,” and in a statement added, “Not only have we registered more voters than in any other state but we have seen an incredible number of the president’s supporters voting early over the past four days.”

Voters take advantage of early voting. (Stephen Morton/Getty Images)

North Carolina, once solidly red, turned narrowly blue in 2008, then more than reverted in a 2010 midterm election that saw a GOP wave throughout the state. Republicans have been very upbeat, with Romney’s harsh primary rival-turned-supportive surrogate Rick Santorum predicting a GOP sweep in a Charlotte appearance to kick off early voting. With 15 electoral votes and Mitt Romney’s chance at the presidency at stake, the party is counting on the state to come through on Nov. 6.

Both parties know how crucial early voting was in 2008, when candidate Obama built up a solid enough lead to overcome his lower-than-John McCain numbers on Election Day itself. Since its Thursday start, early voting has been heavy and on pace to be higher than in 2008, according to the state’s board of elections, when more than half of the votes were cast before Election Day.

According to the pre-election math, the state is critical for a Romney win. Santorum said he is hoping an early call for Romney on election night will swing still-voting Western states his way. Democrats, who have invested years in the ground game that made 2008 possible, aren’t giving up that easily. Rasmussen Reports, which now has Romney up 6 percentage points, is among the polls that show the state’s early toss-up designation now leaning toward Romney. Obama leads by 47 percent to 44 percent in a survey commissioned by Project New America, a Denver-based group with Democratic ties.

To no one’s surprise, turnout will once again be the key. Democrats and Republicans, despite dueling statements, press on in North Carolina for an early voting advantage, and not just for the men at the top of their respective tickets. Down ballot, Republicans seem to have an edge, with signs pointing to a pick-up in congressional races with favorably re-drawn districts, and former Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory avenging his 2008 gubernatorial loss. With low favorability ratings, that year’s winner, Gov. Bev Perdue, decided not to run for re-election; the 2012 Democratic nominee, Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, is running at least 10 points behind in most polls.

A list of surrogates and cheerleaders from both parties take daily turns – without weekend breaks — revving up the faithful to nudge friends and neighbors to the polls.

On this past sunny Saturday, music executive and philanthropist Russell Simmons brought a fashionable troupe that included model Tyson Beckford to join the North Carolina campaign’s Early Vote Express RV. The statewide swing was aimed at young and urban voters the Obama campaign needs to energize. The crowd that waited at a Charlotte park — listening and dancing to Marvin Gaye, Mary J. Blige and McFadden and Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” over the loudspeakers — didn’t mind that Simmons had stopped at a local barbecue restaurant for a vegan burger.

When he arrived, Simmons told the celebratory group waving American flags that “the difference is so dramatic this time” between the candidate he dubbed “money Mitt” and the president. “Mitt Romney works for corporations,” Simmons said. “President Obama works for people.”

Before he headed to the next stop, Simmons told me his message, especially to first-time voters. “It informs and affects everything you do,” he said. “Just that idea of casting that vote, I know what it felt like and I know what it feels like to young people that do it for the first time. It changes the way that they go to work and every area of their lives.” There’s so much at risk, he said, “their education, how much it’s going to cost to go to school, what kinds of loans will be available, who’s going to care about their education, who’s going to care about their health care, who’s going to care about their parents’ Social Security.”

Obama’s North Carolina supporters shouldn’t be discouraged, he said. “Mitt Romney’s spending more money, and his people are spending more time on the ground because right now we’re neck and neck; all we have to do is show up and we can beat them.” Norma Davis, a Charlotte computer technician, undaunted by reports of a North Carolina GOP surge, picked up Simmons’s theme. “Rich folks think money can buy everything,” the Obama volunteer said.

What probably won’t make a difference is the Obama endorsement from the state’s largest newspaper, the Charlotte Observer. On Sunday, it called both presidential choices “uninspiring,” but said Obama has “governed with a philosophy that all Americans deserve at least the opportunity for success, and he’s advocated for tax reform and an educational infrastructure that would promote fairness.” Charlotte’s Mecklenburg County home went solidly for Obama in 2008. The same result is expected this year, though the 2012 margin will make the difference.

Will the Democratic ground game meet the challenge of money and energy fueling North Carolina Republicans in the final campaign weeks?

Does the fact that North Carolina is missing from the six-state itinerary on President Obama’s planned two-day campaign blitz starting Wednesday in Iowa mean anything?

As long as the wall-to-wall ads, voter guides and phone calls keep telling this North Carolinian that this is the most important election in my lifetime, I’ll continue to take Democrats and Republicans at their fighting words.


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