RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- All of a sudden, North Carolina matters.
It hasn't for decades in presidential elections.
Then Democrat Barack Obama made an aggressive play for this traditionally GOP state and polls showed the race tightening. That forced Republican John McCain to defend his turf or risk ceding the southern state - and its 15 electoral votes - to Democrats for the first time in 32 years.
Now, just seven weeks before the election, North Carolina has become a general-election battleground, one of 13 states where both candidates are competing with television commercials and campaign staff on the ground.
"They clearly see the threat," Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said after McCain's campaign intensified its efforts here. "They can profess that they're not concerned. But their spending and their actions belie" that.
Steve Schmidt, McCain's chief strategist, insists the campaign is unconcerned: "It's just one more state where the Obama campaign has allowed its hubris to dictate spending decisions. John McCain will win North Carolina and soon you will see the Obama camp withdraw from North Carolina like you have seen them withdraw from other states."
Public polling shows a competitive race, though private surveys for both Republicans and Democrats give McCain an edge of anywhere from 3 to 8 percentage points.
The challenge for Obama may have increased after McCain selected Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, a choice that has energized conservatives. At a recent Republican gathering in Cary for veterans, the mere mention of Palin's name drew thunderous applause while McCain's name elicited a tepid response.
"I'm not that thrilled about McCain," said James Arscott, 66, a National Guard veteran and a Republican. "That is, I wasn't thrilled about McCain until Sarah Palin came about."
Even Democratic loyalists acknowledge that it is difficult to imagine North Carolina voting for Obama, who would be the country's first black president.
"I would be stunned," said Tim Rohde, 51, a Democrat from Raleigh. "But it would be amazing."
It takes 270 electoral votes to claim the White House. Typically, candidates compete for them in upward of two dozen states early in a general election only to see those that historically aren't swing states drop out of contention by the fall.
The opposite has occurred with North Carolina. Look no further than the state's population spurt - and its origins - to understand why Obama thinks he has a shot this year, and why McCain isn't taking it for granted.
The state has seen steady growth over the past four years as transplants from the more liberal Northeast were drawn to the region for jobs.
White-collar workers have poured into Charlotte's financial hub in the south, while recent college graduates and their young families have been drawn to plentiful jobs and quality education in the academic Research Triangle encompassing Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill. Retirees concerned about health care and the environment have settled on both sides of the state, from the eastern coastline to the western mountains.
"We're a state that's changing, and we're a state that's growing," said Paul Shumaker, a Republican consultant based in Granite Falls. "Everyone has to realize and take into account that we're rapidly evolving."
Added Gary Pearce, a Raleigh-based Democratic consultant: "We have a black man that we can seriously talk about winning North Carolina. That's a huge change. The fact that he's competitive here says it all."
Voter registration rolls illustrate the shifting tide.
State Board of Elections records show that Democratic registrations have risen 7 percent since the start of 2008, while Republican registrations grew about 1 percent. There are now about 40 percent more Democrats than Republicans in North Carolina, although members of both state parties tend to be more conservative than their national counterparts. Registrations among blacks, a pivotal part of the Democratic base, are up almost 10 percent while white registrations are up 4 percent.
The number of registrations for voters who don't claim a political party jumped 11 percent this year.
Democrats control the North Carolina governor's office and have solid majorities in both legislative chambers. National races are different, though: Republicans have won the presidential vote for three decades and the GOP now holds both Senate seats.
Republican analysts express confidence that McCain will carry the state, and that rural blue-collar voters in the eastern flatlands and western mountains who typically vote Democratic in down-ballot races will come through in the end for the GOP nominee. These analysts recall how George W. Bush comfortably won the state twice, and how Democrats couldn't win it even when John Edwards, then a North Carolina senator, was the vice presidential nominee in 2004.
Edwards did help shave a half-point off the GOP's 13-point margin of victory from 2000. Democrats hope a confluence of factors will help them make even bigger inroads this time, perhaps erasing the GOP's edge altogether. They say Obama's spadework during his hard-fought primary race with Hillary Rodham Clinton established a large local volunteer network and served to register, and ultimately turn out, unprecedented numbers of black and young voters.
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