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Handicapping the races for governor, Congress, president

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With local elections behind us and the 2012 cycle cranking up, North Carolina has quickly become one of the most closely watched battleground states. It has a crucial role to play in the presidential election and control of the U.S. House.

Polls continue to show a state evenly split, but strong turnout results posted in this month's local races gave Democrats renewed faith they could reverse GOP gains in the state over the past two years.

"The results show that Democrats absolutely took 2010 as a wake-up call," Thomas Mills, a Democratic strategist, said.

That translated to a focus on getting people to the polls. High turnouts in local races like Charlotte and Greensboro and the 21 percent turnout in Wake County's school board runoff can't be accomplished without a well-organized ground game, he said. "You saw a fully mature get-out-the-vote effort in action. That's the only way you can drive up numbers like that."

The improving ability to drive turnout in the state's urban areas is good news for the president, since that was the key to his slim margin of victory here in 2008.

The most recent Public Policy Polling survey, conducted in late October, shows that should Mitt Romney be the GOP nominee, North Carolina could tip either way in the presidential contest. While Obama swamps the other GOP contenders, Romney now leads the president 46 percent to 45 percent, a reverse from last month's poll and well within the margin of error.

On the polling company's blog, PPP's Tom Jensen writes that even though Obama's North Carolina approval numbers remain below 50 percent, the president enjoys unwavering majorities among black voters (89 percent to 8 percent), and the state could play a much bigger role in the electoral equation, Jensen says, because Obama's popularity is higher in states with larger percentages of black voters.

Obama also leads among voters under 30 (64 percent to 28 percent) and has an edge among those North Carolinians who migrated here from other states (50 percent to 43 percent).

Legal challenges could change the congressional districts before the May 2012 primary, so it's much harder to pin down the possibilities in the state's congressional races. What's not in question is the Republicans' role in the control of Congress.

Jane Mayer's recent profile of Art Pope and her examination of N.C.'s political dynamics in The New Yorker pointed out that the 2010 takeover of the General Assembly wasn't limited to the state. In fact, it was part of national strategy aimed at preventing the U.S. House from swinging back to the Democrats during the 2012 election, during which voters will cast ballots for president and Congress.

The GOP desperately wanted to control the state's redistricting because the party is counting on picking up congressional seats in North Carolina and Texas to offset expected Democratic gains elsewhere. With the Texas redistricting plan now under challenge by the U.S. Department of Justice, those potential seats in the Carolinas (South Carolina gained a new, almost certainly Republican district in the census) become even more important.

Right now, a delayed primary, like the one we saw in 2002 as a result of a court challenge to Democrats' redistricting plan, is the most likely scenario.

That hasn't stopped the GOP and independent groups from targeting vulnerable Democrats. The National Republican Congressional Committee and the conservative American Action Network started running ads this month against Rep. Larry Kissell, whose Eighth Congressional District became more GOP-friendly after new lines were drawn.

Meanwhile, more challengers are announcing in other districts. Asheville's Democratic Mayor Terry Bellamy is said to be close to announcing a run against Republican incumbent Rep. Patrick McHenry, should Asheville remain in the new 10th District.

McHenry took one for the GOP team by taking on part of Asheville in order to make the state's 11th Congressional District, now held by Blue Dog Democrat Heath Shuler, a more likely GOP prospect.

Archconservative U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, running for re-election in the Fifth Congressional District, has also drawn a Democratic challenger. Treva Johnson, a Wilkes County businesswoman and county Democratic Party chairwoman, announced she is forming an exploratory committee.

In the governor's race, chances for Democratic success in the 2012 state races may have been boosted by the recent show of party organization, but there is still plenty to worry about, particularly at the top of the ticket.

Gov. Bev Perdue's odds of being re-elected are still listed as even by various bellwethers like the Cook Political Report, but her poll numbers in a rematch against Pat McCrory are sinking. The latest PPP numbers have McCrory up by 9 percentage points at 48 to 39.

Perdue's wishy-washy opposition to the Defense of Marriage Amendment didn't help her with progressives, nor did her reported support of shifting the vote on the amendment from November to the May primary. Many political observers saw this as a selfish move: A higher Democratic turnout would boost her chances of re-election but force opponents of the amendment to fight the legislation during a GOP-dominated primary.

According to the PPP poll, Perdue is beating McCrory only Down East (New Bern, Greenville, Rocky Mount), which includes her former senate district. Elsewhere, including the Triangle, McCrory is on top.

But the Democrats' ground game should worry McCrory, especially in the former Charlotte mayor's home turf, which will host the Democratic Convention in September.

Republicans had hoped to embarrass Democrats in Charlotte this month, but one-term mayor Anthony Foxx trounced GOP hopeful Scott Stone, taking 67 percent of the vote. Democrats added seats on the City Council as well.

National Democrats were so pleased about the results that on election night, Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida issued a statement that praised the get-out-the-vote effort in the Queen City. She also took a dig at the GOP for trash talk about the convention and said party members will be pleased to have Foxx welcoming them to "Charlotte, the beacon of the New South."

The partisan sniping is going to get worse. Less than a day after the Democrats' big night, Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr told Roll Call that Obama was "done" in North Carolina and said the choice of Charlotte for the convention will "probably be the worst decision that the Democrats make in this election cycle."

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