Page last updated at 21:12 GMT, Thursday, 3 July 2008 22:12 UK

Obama's North Carolina opportunity

By Katty Kay
BBC News, North Carolina

Barack Obama (R) campaigns with North Carolina Governor Mike Easley (File picture)
Mr Obama has been campaigning hard in North Carolina
Bill James' favourite colour - like the Republican Party he supports - is red.

His 1963 Cadillac is blazing crimson.

His neatly tucked-in polo shirt is fiery red - even the bandana round his straw hat gleams the colour of a poppy.

And Mr James' politics are as far from Democratic blue as they could be.

"North Carolina is Republican because people here have conservative values," says Jim.

"If you like a bohemian lifestyle, that doesn't go down too well here."

Making a pitch

As he drove us through the all-white, wealthy suburbs of Charlotte, North Carolina, Bill James, a county commissioner, was confident about his party's chances this year.

John McCain is nowhere to be seen in the state
And he has reason to be. The Democrats have not won North Carolina for the presidency since Jimmy Carter took the state in 1976 - and Mr Carter hailed from nearby Georgia so he had a big advantage.

But this year, for the first time in decades, the Democratic candidate - Barack Obama - is making a real pitch for this southern state.

Is it audacious hope or solid realism?

Since the 1960s, Democrats have largely abandoned the South, preferring to concentrate restricted campaign funds on swing states further north.

But what happens when the party nominates a candidate who has so much money he can afford to campaign in every state he chooses and who particularly appeals to one very important southern voting block - African Americans?

How the race issue affects voting in one US state

Black voters make up almost a quarter of the population of North Carolina and they vote 90% Democratic.

If Mr Obama is going to take this state in November he needs to get them to the polls in large numbers - which is tricky when many are not even registered.

So Mr Obama's ground war is underway in places like the Charlotte Church of National Unity Prayer.

There, Valerie Woodward works the cafeteria urging ageing black voters to get registered, get to the polls and get "a brother into the White House".

It is time-consuming, unglamorous work.

But Valerie says there are unregistered black voters in every "nook and cranny" and she is optimistic the campaign can reach them.

She has reason to be.

Long shot

Since January, 130,000 Democrats have registered to vote - that is a landslide compared to the 13,000 Republicans who have registered in the same period.

Mr Obama is already running ads in this state - and has signed up 15,000 volunteers to man phone banks and rally supporters.

In a Republican stronghold, this is an impressive display of financial muscle and political confidence.

And curiously, the Republican candidate John McCain is nowhere to be seen in the state.

He does not have adverts up on the airwaves, and in Charlotte he does not even have a campaign operation.

The Republican is spending his far scarcer resources elsewhere, confident the South will stay in his column.

But Mr McCain and the war-ridden Republican party is far less popular than Mr Bush was in 2000 and 2004 and he may have to step up his game and his spending here to keep the state.

From increasingly liberal Charlotte, we drove up into the stunning Appalachian mountains in the west of the state.

There we met Bruce Snelson - a cattle farmer.

The Snelsons have been farming this land in the hills for more than 200 years and Bruce is as loyal to his party as he is to these family fields.

He has voted Democratic all his life.

But this year he has a quandary - he doesn't want another Republican in office, but he doesn't much like Barack Obama.

Question of allegiance

The rumours about Senator Obama's faith and lack of patriotism have hit a chord with this conservative Democrat.

"I don't know his stand on the pledge of allegiance, but I have seen the picture where... it appeared that he was refusing to pledge allegiance to the flag, hold his hand over the heart or pledge allegiance, where Hillary Clinton and Bill Richardson was," he said.

"So I don't think it's right that we have a commander-in-chief and leader of the country that refuses to pledge allegiance to our flag and our country."

Bruce Snelson is a good test for Mr Obama.

If he wants to win in the South, he needs to persuade men like this that they can trust and feel comfortable with him.

From the western mountains to its eastern shoreline, North Carolina is still a long shot for the Democrats.

But if Barack Obama does win here, the chances are he will take the country as well.

Electoral College votes

Winning post 270
Obama - Democrat
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Select from the list below to view state level results.

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