05/14/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Clintons On Site and On Fox, Pulling Close in NC

The North Carolina Democratic primary today is going to be a squeaker. That's how it looks on the ground, among the trees--no matter what the forest of polls sees. As Linda, a quiet-voiced woman from Randolph County confided to me last week, "everybody I know is about divided." What Hillary Clinton has going for her is that she has run the better campaign, and she herself has been the "fired up!" candidate. Barack Obama owns the demographics: his powerful coalition of students, affluent and/or educated white urbanites and African-Americans.

Senator Clinton and her husband and daughter have fought fiercely for North Carolina. Can she leave the state with an almost? If she does, she will be able to continue her argument to superdelegates about winning Middle America. Here's what she has going for her at the polls today. "The smartest thing she did was go on Bill O'Reilly," Rena said to me after the rally Saturday at Mooresville's Auto Racing Hall of Fame. I heard that observation a dozen times over the weekend. North Carolinians watch a lot of Fox News, it seems. The weekend also gave Hillary Clinton the majority of the undecided voters, simply because she and her husband were in the state asking for those votes and Barack Obama was not. Following Senator Clinton on Saturday and the ex-President on Sunday, I found a surprising number of Undecideds (25 out of a 100 people I questioned)--all of whom, after seeing a Clinton, said that watching the candidate in person made up their minds. None of these folks had had the opportunity to see Senator Obama.

Having spent more time in the state, Hillary Clinton has gone farther and deeper into North Carolina than Barack Obama has done. As Clinton surrogate Sophie B. Hawkins said at the Saturday rally in Gastonia, "we've gone from Wal-Mart to Lowe's to the fish camp with Miss Kitty." Senator Clinton has met people on riverfronts, at fire stations, before town memorials. Bill Clinton has held dozens of front porch rallies. Hillary Clinton, now that she's almost certain to lose, has found her voice and the right persona--one of spunk and joy anchored with a tough shrewdness--for what she has to offer the country. This is a different woman from the soft-focused and motherly candidate who spoke soporifically to Iowans. She speaks about her vision for America with clarity, conviction and even passion--for those who are willing, at this late date, to listen. The problem for her in North Carolina is that so many Democrats had already made up their minds about her before she even arrived.

The back-and-forth sniping between Senators Clinton and Obama over a theoretical gas tax holiday hasn't seemed to matter much. People have more important things to worry about. When I specifically asked about it, Tar Heelers shrugged and said, "nine dollars is nine dollars." What is on their minds is education. North Carolina has a better-educated populace than many other states, but Tar Heelers want more. There have been some articles in the papers here about young men and women coming home from Iraq and struggling because of their physical and mental disabilities to make it in college. North Carolinians want more help for these veterans, and they want the rest of their young people not to have to serve so many rotations in Iraq. Even in Fayetteville, Ft. Bragg and Wilmington, people talk quietly about ending the war and ending it now. Since both Clinton and Obama address the issues of education and war similarly, the gas tax holiday could be the swing issue here--except for the fact that nobody seems excited about it, one way or the other, not even in small towns, where folks often have to drive long distances to work.

North Carolina is not only educated but young. Both of these demographics help Barack Obama. College students, like their peers elsewhere in the country, have registered to vote in record numbers. The fact that African-Americans are 67,000 of the 110,000 new Democratic voters--that fact alone--likely gives Barack Obama North Carolina, no matter how hard or how well Hillary Clinton has campaigned here. Entire church congregations came out together for One-Stop Early Voting in Charlotte and Durham. Those early votes (early voting ended Saturday) are like money in the bank for Obama. At his events, not hers, many people have raised their hands as early voters.

One of the great stories of Election 2008, as I indicated in my previous piece on Lenoir, is Bill Clinton's wooing of small towns. But here's the thing about western North Carolina, where Clinton has concentrated much of his effort. Mountain folk historically and temperamentally have never felt connected to national politics. Cautious and careful, some of them will still be mulling over whether or not to vote for Bill's wife long after the polls have closed. Eastern North Carolina has not early-voted in record numbers. Despite having seen Bill Clinton and much appreciated his stopping by, some of these small-towners will not quite make it to their polling places.

Hillary Clinton needs three out of four white votes to win North Carolina. She's just not going to get that percentage. What will be interesting, however, will be the numbers for the Raleigh and Charlotte suburbs. With the caveat that many of these suburbanites (the majority) are Republicans, the Democrats among them--those educated and relatively affluent professionals--are supposed to be an Obama crowd. If Obama's percentages of these voters are not as high as anticipated, the Reverend Wright controversy will have had an effect.

Five points. It seems to me that's the number for Hillary Clinton. She has to win Indiana by more than five and lose North Carolina by less than five. If she can't get that number, the Superdelegate shuffle to Obama is going to pick up. And hey, guys and gals, could you make it a little faster? Could you pluck the courage to step out? Because all this Clinton/Obama trail talk about bringing the party together in the fall is whistling past the graveyard. Through Texas, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, the chorus of partisan discontent has grown louder. Now more and more people tell me either (1) if Clinton wins, they'll sit out; or (2) if Obama wins, they'll vote for McCain. The Democratic Party is going to need more than a few months to heal the wounds this mother of all nomination battles has inflicted. Meanwhile the battle has raised the ante on campaign promises. Both Clinton and Obama are making promises they are going to have to break. Meanwhile both candidates have grown increasingly militaristic, and in the heat of this nomination, the press and the public have been distracted from this worrisome development. Clinton talks nuclear to Iran and lowers her voice when warning the campaign trail about China's building a deep-water fleet. Obama has laid down markers on Afghanistan and the wilds of Pakistan: we must "win Afghanistan at all costs" and catch Osama.

Suddenly, a little tussle over North Carolina looks better and better. One thing though: in the fall Barack Obama needs to get down to the fish camp with Miss Kitty.