At one time, Dems respected local preferences

When U.S. Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton visit North Carolina, they don't have to trudge through a tobacco warehouse or talk about guns. A decade or more ago, presidential candidates paid homage to the economic and cultural issues that often distinguished North Carolina from the rest of the country.

Al Gore, then a senator, stopped at a farm in Greenville in 1988 and, in what one political operative called "a typical Al Gore sweaty speech," talked about his experience curing and hanging tobacco.

That same year Jesse Jackson, who called out union supporters by name at Virginia events, toned down his union rhetoric in North Carolina, a right-to-work state, said Bruce Lightner, Jackson's N.C. campaign manager.

Last week Clinton and Obama spoke in big arenas in Winston-Salem and Raleigh, respectively, talking jobs, health care and Iraq as they have in other states.

Obama's first television commercial in North Carolina was a repeat from Ohio, talking about ending tax breaks for corporations that shift jobs overseas.

The presidential campaigns are not southern-fried when they get to North Carolina, they're nationalized. That approach works now because the state's economy and voters have both changed.

"If there's a North Carolina (presidential) debate, it will look and sound much like the debate in Pennsylvania," said Ferrel Guillory, founder of UNC Chapel Hill's Program on Public Life.

'Totally different era'

Congress eliminated the tobacco quota system in 2004 that regulated the supply of the crop. Prices fell, tobacco became concentrated in large contract farms and candidates no longer needed to pledge support for the federal system. Two other major industries in the state, textiles and furniture, have all but disappeared. Banks, high tech, pharmaceutical and other information-centric industries have blossomed, along with the state's population, particularly in major cities.

The IBM plant in Research Triangle Park near Raleigh employs more workers than there are tobacco farmers in the whole state. North Carolina is no longer a rural, textile-heavy, tobacco state.

"It's a totally different era," said Rufus Edmisten, former attorney general and Democratic nominee for governor in 1984. "Like it or not, we have lots of small, rural towns, but we're urbanized now. We're as sophisticated as any state in the union and the campaigns reflect that."

In the rare presidential elections past when North Carolina's primary played a role, candidates who didn't tailor their image and message did so at their own peril. Michael Dukakis in 1988 suggested tobacco farmers could instead grow Belgian endive.

"He sent his advance team -- a bunch of New England hippies who arrived in a VW van," said Peter Daniel, of the N.C. Farm Bureau.

Gore won that primary.

Big state, big cities

The voting population looks different now than it did 10 or 20 years ago. Voters are more Republican but more moderate.

"The state has changed: younger, more progressive, higher educated, more affluent, particularly in the cities," said Gary Pearce, a Democratic strategist on campaigns dating back to the 1970s. "We've become more like the rest of the country."

Democratic candidates don't have to tiptoe around cultural and moral questions, such as gay rights, as they did in the past, party operatives said.

"A lot of the things that might have been seen as hot button issues in 1988 are seen as more acceptable in communities today," said Tom Hendrickson, Gore's state director in 1988 and a key Clinton supporter this year.

Race hasn't been eliminated as an issue but at least minimized.

George Wallace's segregationist rhetoric helped him beat native son Terry Sanford in the 1972 Democratic primary. This year Barack Obama, who is black, leads in the polls.

The campaigns also now must cope with 24-hour news coverage from Internet outlets and cable TV networks, regardless of where they are.

"What (Jesse) Jackson would say in North Carolina, he probably would not say verbatim in California" in 1988, Lightner said. Now "if you say one thing in one place and something else in another, you get in trouble."

Obama found that out with his recent comments in San Francisco about Americans in small towns turning "bitter" over disappearing jobs and tending to "cling to guns or religion."

The notable exception in strategy is sending former President Clinton to small, sometimes rural, towns across the state. Bruce Thompson, a Clinton organizer, said the campaign is showing it's in touch with what's going on in the state.

Two weeks ago, Bill Clinton visited several Eastern North Carolina towns, many of them the crossroads of farming communities. Edmisten called the trip "Bubba's barbecue tour."


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