Local Politics

Columnist: Political 'Circus' Coming to Town

Thanks to record voter registration and a close fight for the Democratic presidential nomination, North Carolina could have more political influence than it's seen in decades.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina's May primary might matter on a national scale for the first time in decades, thanks to record voter registration and a tight race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

"The circus is coming to town, and if you like politics, it should be pretty entertaining," said Rob Christensen, a political columnist for the News & Observer and author of the book "The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics."

Democratic contenders Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama will likely make personal appearances, whether at a debate or on campaign stops, Christensen said. North Carolina has 134 Democratic delegates up for grabs on May 6.

A March 6 poll by Rasmussen Reports gave Obama a 7-point lead over Clinton among likely Democratic primary voters. The poll had 4-point margin of error.

CBS is trying to organize a nationally televised debate for some time in April. Obama agreed to April 19, but that date conflicts with the start of Passover. The network proposed an alternative of April 18 – just two days before a scheduled debate in Philadelphia – and was waiting to hear from the two camps.

Other networks were also angling to host a debate in North Carolina.

In the meantime, expect Obama and Clinton to open campaign offices across the state, air campaign ads and perhaps bring in Bill and Chelsea Clinton and other politically connected celebrities to stump for them, Christensen said.

Since Sen. John McCain has the Republican nomination wrapped up, he will likely make less of an appearance in the state.

"(That activity) energizes and invigorates voters, because it makes them feel like they're not just anointing a candidate, but they actually have a choice," said Kerra Bolton, a spokeswoman for the state Democratic party.

Voter registration numbers reflect that energy: In the first two months of 2004 before the most recent presidential election, 35,434 new voters registered. In the same two-month period of 2008, more than 100,525 people registered to vote.

"We have never before in out history had as many people to register to participate, hopefully participate, in the primary election," Gary Bartlett, with the state Board of Elections, said.

The conflation of all those events means North Carolina's late primary could have an influence it has not had in a long time, Christensen said.

"I think the eyes of the nation will be on North Carolina in a way that has never been before," he said.


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