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Obama courts Tar Heel support

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Barack Obama's North Carolina momentum is mounting, with endorsements from 29 members of the General Assembly on April 22 and a standing-room-only appearance at the state fairgrounds last week.

"The fact that we're seeing people involved in the political process that have never been involved before—that sort of thing can be transformative," N.C. Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand said.

State Senate and House members backing the Democratic presidential primary frontrunner also included eight Triangle legislators: Sens. Ellie Kinnaird (Orange), Vernon Malone (Wake) and Floyd McKissick (Durham), as well as Reps. Dan Blue, Ty Harrell and Grier Martin of Wake, Bill Faison (Orange) and Larry Hall (Durham).

"We started calling around and lining up people who believed in Obama's message," said Blue, the former House speaker who co-chaired Bill Clinton's North Carolina campaigns. "We realized it was a big number of us who will do whatever it takes to help win Obama the presidency."

Both Obama and rival Hillary Clinton have been campaigning heavily in North Carolina, in advance of the May 6 primary. Obama leads Clinton in the national race for delegates with 1,645 to Clinton's 1,504, according to the Associated Press.

In an hour-long town hall meeting in Raleigh last week, Obama impressed Raleigh resident Tangela Keaton.

"I was really enchanted with his educational plan, like when he talked about special education, No Child Left Behind, giving teachers better resources," she said. "I really like Barack overall because he believes in a holistic concept and being inclusive."

In his Raleigh speech, the Illinois senator also deflected mounting criticism from Clinton, making a familiar promise to focus on the issues rather than "the politics of tearing people down."

"That's her right to twist the knife a little bit," Obama said. "I expected that because that's the textbook Washington game."

His remarks at the Kerr Scott Building on the N.C. State Fairgrounds came the day after a debate in Philadelphia, in which ABC news moderators Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos questioned Obama about his relationship with his controversial pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and about Obama's recent comment that poor economic conditions have embittered rural Americans and driven them toward guns and religion. Obama noted more than once in the Raleigh campaign stop that 45 minutes passed in the Philadelphia debate before the candidates discussed any real issues.

"I know some people were frustrated at last night, but that was the rollout of the Republican campaign," Obama said. "It happened just a little bit early. I will have to respond sharply and crisply and turn pivot and talk about what we are going to do with the economy and what we're going to do in the war in Iraq."

The line to see Obama snaked at least a quarter-mile into the sun-baked parking lot. The group ranged in age from young to old and represented diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds. Organizers say 2,000 attended.

With humor that roused his audience to laughter several times, Obama touched on many of the issues he's hammered home in 15 months on the campaign trail, focusing on the war in Iraq and the slowing economy, although without much depth or detail. The United States is in two wars, he said: "One we have to win and one that should have never been authorized."

"Domestically our economy is in a shambles. Wall Street just figured this out, but Main Street knew it long ago. Costs are up. Incomes are down. It's harder to save. It's harder to retire."

Echoing a campaign ad that has been airing here for several weeks, Obama promised to stop giving tax breaks to companies that ship jobs overseas and instead give tax relief to companies that stay in America. And he said he would end the Iraq war in 2009, which drew a standing ovation.

Obama also touted his health insurance plan, which he said would save people as much $2,500 a year on health insurance. He praised Clinton's healthcare plan too, but suggested he would do better at defeating lobbyists for HMOs and insurance companies. "The problem isn't who has the best 10-point plan," he said. "The problem is how to get it done."

He repeated his promise to broadcast negotiations of his plan on C-Span. "We'll have everybody there to discuss our health care plan," he said. "The insurance companies will get a chair—they just won't get to buy every chair at the table."

Obama also laid out cursory plans to stop taxing senior citizens on their social security income, pay teachers higher salaries and give college students a $4,000 tuition credit.

After his prepared remarks, he answered questions from the audience, including one from a woman who tried to pin him down on whether he would debate Clinton in North Carolina. State Democratic Party officials have tried to convince Obama to debate here, without success.

"We've now had 21 debates. I could deliver Sen. Clinton's lines. She could deliver mine," he said. "We're trying to figure out how to campaign and reach the most amount of people."

Another woman asked how Obama would handle the Republican attack machine. "If the Republicans come at me, I will come right back at them, and I will come at them hard," he said. "It's a little harder to do to a fellow Democrat. I try to show some restraint. I won't show any restraint with the Republicans."

The crowd filed out of the auditorium around 2:30 p.m., past Obama volunteers urging them to take advantage of same-day registration and early voting.

"It was inspirational," said Chris Weeks of Raleigh. "I think he was on point for every issue that was addressed. It gave me an opportunity to connect."

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