CHARLOTTE, N.C. — For the first time in years, Democrats say North Carolina is up for grabs in the race for president.
Their candidate, Sen. John Kerry, made a campaign stop in Charlotte Friday to prove the point.
Kerry came to Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte without Sen. John Edwards, who represents North Carolina. Still, Kerry's southern running mate offered the senator from Massachusetts some advice.
"Call everybody you meet 'sir' or 'ma'am,'" Kerry said Edwards told him, "and if you see anything you don't recognize, it's grits."
For Democrats in this conservative banking town, Kerry's visit was a once-in-a-decade moment. Not since Bill Clinton attended an October 1992 rally that drew 15,000 people to downtown's Marshall Park had a Democrat presidential nominee appeared in Charlotte during the general election campaign.
Kerry hit familiar economic themes such as reducing the federal deficit and healthcare costs while protecting North Carolina jobs.
"Stop having any American subsidize the loss of their job," he said. "We're going to start rewarding companies that stay here and keep jobs in the United States of America. That's what we're going to do."
The Democratic candidate avoided the controversy stirred by fellow veterans who question Kerry's service in Vietnam.
Local vets took on the fight for him.
"They're a front for the (President George W.) Bush people, and Bush will not deny them," WWII vet David Henderson said. "It's shameful."
Former Gov. Jim Hunt and former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt joined Kerry at Friday's event. Hunt has been mentioned as a possible education secretary if Kerry wins in November.
"If you help me and (vice presidential nominee) John Edwards, I think we can put them to work" in a Kerry administration, Kerry said of Gantt and Hunt.
Though Gov. Mike Easley did not attend, he also won praise.
"I think Gov. Easley needs a partner or two in the White House," Kerry said.
Easley, who is seeking re-election, did not attend a rally attended by both Kerry and Edwards last month in Raleigh. He also was missing from the state's delegation to the Democratic National Convention in Boston, spurring talk that he does not want to be seen with the national ticket.
Easley was in Asheville on Friday, speaking to a meeting of state county commissioners -- a speech that campaign spokesman Jay Reiff said had been scheduled weeks in advance "and happened almost at precisely the same time as Senator Kerry's speech.
"The governor has said previously that there will be time as the campaign progresses for there to be joint campaign activities," Reiff said.
Kerry, meanwhile, followed the same campaign trail as Bush. The president spoke at the same community college in April.
This was Kerry's second visit to North Carolina as a presidential candidate. Democrats believe, if this really is a battleground state, he will be back many more times before November.
Edwards himself is due in Charlotte on Sunday, to attend services at a black church and hold a front-porch session in one of the city's suburbs.
Democrats in North Carolina have been buoyed by polls showing the Kerry-Edwards ticket running only a few points behind President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, within the margin of error of most polls.
Bush carried the state by 13 points in 2000, when Al Gore did not mount a campaign here.
Jimmy Carter in 1976 was the last Democratic presidential candidate to carry the state.
The President and First Lady were in Texas Friday, working on their speeches for the Republican National Convention. It starts in about two weeks in New York City.
The White House press secretary said the president's speech will be "forward-looking.." and will build on what he calls the president's "record of results."
Laura Bush likely will say her husband is a strong and determined leader -- what the country needs right now.
After Friday's speech, which focused on economic proposals, Kerry stuck around for more than half an hour, shaking hands, signing autographs and posing for photos with the adoring crowd.
Outside the center, a group of about 15 Bush supporters and anti-abortion activists carried signs, while a man preached against abortion over a loudspeaker.