04/11/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

North Carolina Primary Could Be Democratic Graveyard

"The end could be near," USA Today reports in an article headlined "Why the Democratic race could end in North Carolina."

Four months and 42 states after the opening Iowa caucuses, the primary in North Carolina on May 6 now looms as a pivotal final showdown between Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Obama starts with a double-digit lead in polls here, a state where 2,400 free tickets to his rally at the War Memorial Auditorium in Greensboro last week were gone within three hours of the announcement he would appear. But Clinton has appeal in the Tar Heel State, too, and is competing hard. The day after Obama's rally, she drew 1,000 supporters to the gym at Terry Sanford High School in Fayetteville for a town hall meeting.

"I really believe May 6 has the potential to be everything," says Joe Trippi, a strategist for the presidential bids of former North Carolina senator John Edwards this year and Howard Dean in 2004. "Every day you see increased pressure on Hillary Clinton about why she's staying in, and if she could win in North Carolina it would shut down that kind of talk and open up the possibility she could get there" to the nomination.

"But if he wins in North Carolina," Trippi says of Obama, "I think you're going to see things close up very quickly. You'll see a lot of superdelegates line up behind him."

The local News & Observer is reporting that the candidates seem to share the same vision, with massive organization ramping up in the state:

In recent days, the campaigns began assembling ground operations that instantaneously dwarfed the efforts of candidates for governor, the U.S. Senate and dozens of other North Carolina offices.

Obama has opened 15 campaign offices in the state, a number expected to grow. The Clinton campaign dedicated its headquarters near the Glenwood South section of Raleigh on Wednesday with about a dozen more offices to come.

Hotline has run the numbers to identify a wild card that is difficult to poll: the net switch of Republicans who might be voting in the Democratic primary:

But there's also a lot of movement within the ranks of registered voters. Between January and March of this year, more than 30,000 currently registered voters changed their party identification. More than 12,000 of those, about 40%, are previously Republican voters who have moved OUT of the party to register either as Democrats or as unaffiliated voters able to participate in either primary on May 6th. Subtract from that the number of Dems and unaffiliated voters who moved into the GOP, and there's still a net LOSS of about 6,700 Republican voters in three months. In contrast, the Democratic party nabbed a net of about 4,000 voters - previously Republican or unaffiliated - who moved into the D column. And the unaffiliated group, which gained almost 50,000 new voters in the last three months, added an additional 2,700 net from the shuffle.

Why am I telling you all this? Unaffiliateds are the big bold wildcard in the Carolina election - they're difficult to poll and even harder to target, and their motivations are all over the map. From Republicans hoping to throw a monkey wrench in the Democratic primary at Rush Limbaugh's urging, to disenchanted partisans seeking a unity candidate, to last-minute undecideds, these are the voters who could surprise us all.