No doubt about it, Hillary Clinton's odds remain long in North Carolina. Just ask Erskine Bowles, who lost two Senate bids because of his connection to the Clinton administration, or ask Bill Clinton himself who lost the state twice. Or better yet, just look at the demographics. Clinton has yet to win a state where African Americans comprise more than 30 percent of the electorate and blacks in North Carolina comprise 38 percent of registered Democrats.
Pundits have pretty much written off Hillary's chances in North Carolina. Until yesterday, Hillary might well have been Don Quixote lying on the side of the road, ravaged by windmills and gypsies. But in the last 24 hours, her campaign has unexpectedly been handed an olive branch, an endorsement, and a chance to change the odds.
According to veteran strategist Doug Heye, Gov. Mike Easley's (D) endorsement of Clinton is huge. To be sure, Easley is no Ed Rendell or Ted Strickland-- he does not have their powerful state organization -- but he is still popular with rural, white, blue-collar Democrats who Clinton has been targeting. "It's still uphill. But Governor Easley would not endorse a candidate he thought was going to lose," Heye said.
Make no mistake however, if speculation is correct Easley won't be the only big North Carolina name endorsing Clinton. In an MSNBC interview yesterday, Elizabeth Edwards said she would not rule out making an endorsement before Tuesday's primary. Edwards has made it clear that she favors Clinton, and as North Carolina political analyst Gary Pearce put it: "it's going to take John Edwards hog tying her down" to stop his wife from coming out for Hillary.
The other development yesterday in North Carolina, of course, was Obama's denunciation of Rev. Jeremiah Wright. In the long term, the Wright controversy may hurt Obama's efforts to broaden his appeal among working class white voters. More immediately, Obama's response to the Wright controversy could alienate an unlikely set of his North Carolina supporters: the 38% of African-American primary voters who were expected to turn out in droves for him on Tuesday.
Obama's very public "divorce" from Wright may turn some black supporters away from him. For African Americans, Wright is more than the 48 hour self-inflicted-media spectacle he created. Many still view him as a passionate pastor who has worked hard to develop his church ministry in an underprivileged community.
More importantly, he was Obama's family. Prior to yesterday, Obama said he would not disown Wright or his church, which he said "embodies the black community in its entirety." In black churches the relationship between pastor and parishioner is a sacred one and denouncing Wright could produce a backlash against Obama -- a Sister Souljah moment of sorts.
Ace Smith, Clinton's North Carolina state director, says a win in the state would be "the upset of the century." Even cutting into Obama's double-digit lead in the Tar Heel State is no small order. But yesterday the prospect of an against-all-odds victory by the underdog entered the realm of political possibility.