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

NC GOP Voters: Who Are These People?

RALEIGH, N.C. -- With North Carolina in a dead heat, Republicans are demanding to be heard.

On Saturday, Sarah Palin delivered her final rally here to a crowd so large that the line snaked back and forth across the fair grounds, although only a few thousand were able to get inside.

"I know I'm probably not going to get to see her," said Liz Pernaciaro, who had made the event a ladies' night out with her daughters and some friends, "but we wanted to show our support."

Even though it has voted for a Democratic president only once since 1968, North Carolina has Obama and McCain in a statistical tie. However, early voting has Democrats turning out 2 to 1 over Republicans--a good, but not sure, sign for Obama.

But Saturday's Palin rally and the steady stream of other McCain campaign events here in the last two weeks have served as reminders that the race isn't yet over, and plenty of Republicans are planning to turn out to vote on Tuesday, if they haven't already.

gen/43709/original.jpgIn line at the Palin rally, voters overwhelming cited taxes and abortion as the main reasons they supported the GOP ticket. Palin herself was a bonus: She spoke in layman's terms. She was family-oriented. She was fresh. She was new. Up and down the line, red shirts gave way to pink ones with Palin's name across the chest. It could almost have been a Hillary rally, risen from the ashes. Mothers brought their daughters, daughters brought their mothers, young women spoke of how proud they were to see a female candidate on the presidential ticket ("I always wanted to be governor when I grew up," said Alana Tomlin-Denton), and both men and women acknowledged that Palin brought welcome change to the party.

For the most part, these voices represent the core of North Carolina Republican voters--committed, conscientious, visible. But over the last two weeks, I've encountered McCain voters who are not so obvious.

In Franklinton, a small, rural town an hour northeast of Durham, a group of motorcycle-riding veterans called McCain "the lesser of two evils." John Deal, the head of his Rolling Thunder chapter, said his group was "leaning Republican," but that McCain was "not a friend of MIA-POW issues." They wished Colin Powell had run--a sentiment repeated by other likely McCain voters for whom the war in Iraq was a paramount issue.

Ross Perot came up with GOP-leaning voters as well, along with a general distaste for politics and politicians, who would say almost anything to get elected. In casual conversations, it seems that McCain has lost credibility as a straight talker, but it's possible these disenchanted voters will cast their ballots for him anyway.

There are also those who are voting explicitly against Obama.

"I'll tell you who I'm not voting for," said the owner of a flea market just outside Chapel Hill. "Obama. The end of the world is coming soon enough. Electing him will just make it happen faster."

End times is a common theme among many McCain voters with whom I spoke--in a Sarah Palin rally in Asheville, one supporter referred to a prediction in the Book of Revelations that the anti-Christ would come in the form of a man from the Middle East who was part black, part white, and part yellow. (As far as I know, the Book of Revelations says no such thing.) Even if their responses are not quite so dramatic, many McCain voters express anxiety over what will happen to America's survival and safety if Obama is elected.

And, of course, there are the 20% of North Carolina Democrats who are voting for the GOP presidential ticket. I found a few--but only a few--in line at the Palin rally. One self-declared conservative preferred to vote Democratic in some local elections, and two others had a change of heart over the last few years and hadn't bothered to update their registrations.

But if you ask longtime North Carolina residents who these people are, the conventional understanding is that the bulk of this group are Dixiecrats--Democratic-inclined voters who are also concerned with preserving what might be described as a Southern heritage.

"We have a lot of Democrats around here who are what's called 'socially conservative,'" said Armenia Eaton, an Obama volunteer who has lived 59 years in Franklinton. "But we just call them racist. They'd rather die than switch."

Race is of course the wild card that has Obama supporters worried, especially in North Carolina, where many towns still have a train track running down the middle, with blacks living on one side and whites on another. When I ask people who they are voting for, race hangs on almost every answer--whether ultimately for or against Obama. ("I vote for the brown one," said a Mexican-American woman working at the flea market, touching her finger to her own forearm.)

Because race is sometimes a positive, sometimes a negative, and sometimes just another variable in a complex equation, it's impossible to say how it will play out over hundreds of thousands of North Carolina voters on Tuesday. The numbers feel too big, and the electorate too complicated and too anomalous this year to predict anything.

Certainly the mood at the Palin rally on Saturday night was charged with a giddy uncertainty. Palin herself seemed almost manic, speaking especially quickly and racing through her talking points. On the floor of the arena, supporters waved American flags, stomped their feet, and hollered Sa-Rah, Sa-Rah so loudly the walls shook. The event had the feel of end-times itself. Whatever happens on Tuesday, this would be the last time the McCain campaign would come together in North Carolina in its quest for the presidency, and supporters pitched toward the stage in solidarity and a shared thirst for victory.