N.C. voters appear -- in droves

Times Staff Writer

Swaddled in pine forests and farmers' fields, this sleepy county seat is known for its hickory-smoked barbecue, its Civil War battles and a chilling Cold War footnote: In 1961, a crippled B-52 dropped two thermonuclear bombs into a nearby swamp.

Thankfully, they did not explode.

But Goldsboro, like scores of other North Carolina towns, is making fresh history. Statewide, in an early voting program that ended Saturday, more than 337,000 voters have cast ballots in the hard-fought Democratic presidential primary between Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois.

"It's really bringing people out," Erin Burridge, deputy director of the Wayne County Board of Elections, said enthusiastically as she surveyed a line of voters that doubled back behind the local library.

"We're getting a lot of individuals who have never voted before."

It is unclear whether Obama will enjoy the sweeping victory that he has been hoping for after the rest of the state's voters go to the polls on Tuesday. His long-commanding lead in opinion polls has shrunk significantly as he has struggled to distance himself from his controversial former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.

One sign of the damage: News of Obama's sweaty morning workout last Tuesday with the University of North Carolina Tar Heels, a basketball team with near-divine status here, wasn't on front pages.

Wright is a problem for Obama in the state, said Andrew Taylor, chairman of political science at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

"Where it's hurting him most is [among] white middle-class Democrats in suburban areas who have supported him elsewhere," Taylor said.

"They're having second thoughts because of this."

The Wright controversy was topic No. 1 for many Democrats who cast ballots Friday in Goldsboro.

"If he was going to denounce his pastor, he should have done it long ago," Dorothy Summerlin, 61, a construction company office worker, said after she had voted for Clinton. "I don't believe him now."

John Pate, a retired state law enforcement officer, and his wife, Dorothy, voted for Clinton, whom he called the "lesser of two evils."

Obama's affiliation with Wright "made a big difference," his wife said.

But Judy West, 56, who runs a dress shop, dismissed the issue as irrelevant. "Rev. Wright doesn't speak for Barack," she said after voting for Obama.

Billy Raymes, 29, assistant manager of a grocery store, praised Obama's response to the Wright controversy as honest and heartfelt. "I think too much is being made of it," he said.

Corinna Rios, 20, a psychology student at East Carolina University, chimed in: "I'm sick of hearing about it."

Obama is still expected to capture a much-needed victory in North Carolina after his difficult few weeks. His aides hope for a strong win in the nation's 10th-largest state -- and a solid showing in Indiana, which also votes Tuesday -- to ease concerns about his ability to forge a winning coalition against the presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

Although North Carolina's best-known Democrat -- former Sen. John Edwards, who dropped his own White House bid in January -- has not made a pick in the race, Obama is backed by most of the Democrats seeking statewide office this year. That includes the two major contenders seeking to succeed Democratic Gov. Mike Easley.

Easley, a NASCAR fan known locally as Gov. Bubba, made a splash last week by endorsing Clinton. But, unlike chief executives in some other states, he doesn't control a large political machine.

And in a sign of the rising tensions in the Democratic race, his embrace of Clinton earned him boos from Obama partisans Friday night at the state party's Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, an event aimed at fostering unity.

North Carolina's racial demographics favor Obama. African Americans are likely to cast more than a third of the primary's ballots. Based on the pattern of overwhelming black support for Obama in other Southern states, Clinton would need two-thirds of the white vote to beat him -- a formidable task.

The economic angst that benefited Clinton in the Pennsylvania and Ohio primaries is not as prevalent in North Carolina.

The state's old economic base -- tobacco, textiles and furniture -- has given way to computers, pharmaceuticals and other high-tech industries.

The surging economy has slowed, but housing prices in Charlotte, the largest city, rose 3.6% last year, more than in any other city in the nation.

Still, state officials and political experts see cracks in Obama's once-solid firewall.

As elsewhere, white voters have become the key battleground group -- and Clinton appears to have made gains within this bloc.

"The race is tightening, no question about it," said Hunter Bacot, a poll director at Elon University, near Greensboro. "Considering what's happening with Rev. Wright, her recent victory in Pennsylvania and her courting of the white, blue-collar vote, [she's] really picking up steam."

Thad Beyle, a political science professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, agreed.

"Things are moving in her direction. And she's campaigning in places Democrats don't usually go. I got a call the other day from Haywood County in the mountains out west. It's real Republican country." The reporter couldn't figure out why Clinton was there, Beyle said.

Jim Hunt, a Democrat who served four nonconsecutive terms as governor and who has not endorsed anyone, said he didn't expect an upset. But he said he was surprised to see "limited-income whites" flood his polling place Friday in Wilson, in the eastern part of the state.

"A whole lot more white voters are coming out, at least in my district," he said. Clinton "has energized a lot of people to vote who would not otherwise vote."

Many here attribute that to her husband, former President Clinton, who has campaigned vigorously among rural and working families, especially in old mill towns yet to benefit from the new economy. He barnstormed nearly 50 towns and hamlets during the last month, and was scheduled to return for more today.

"Here he is, going from Apex to Fuquay-Varina to Dunn, spending hours at time, day after day, drumming up votes for his wife," marveled Ferrell Guillory, director of a public policy institute at UNC-Chapel Hill. "It's not just one speech a day. It's five or six. Can you imagine Ronald Reagan stumping for votes like that?"

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bob.drogin@latimes.com

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