Hillary's Southern Crossroads

North Carolina can make or break her campaign


Even though its current focus is on the battle for Pennsylvania, the Democratic presidential race is certain to tilt on the results of North Carolina's May 6th primary. It is there that Hillary Clinton must show that working class, Southern, white voters will balk at supporting Barack Obama come November.

Clinton is not so much trying to win the nomination outright—neither candidate will secure enough delegates to do that—as she is auditioning before the party's superdelegates to be cast as the nominee most likely to beat John McCain. This requires offering some kind of proof that Obama is—pick your focus group: too black, too scary, too liberal, or too scary-black-liberal—to win enough white votes to beat McCain.

This is where North Carolina comes in. Ringed by three states that Obama won handily just weeks ago, a Clinton win would show that Obama's race relations talk didn't work, and that not even in a state with a significant black Democratic base can he overcome the suspicion that he is a crypto-Black Panther. Not only did Obama win South Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia, he crushed Clinton in those races, displaying the twin aspects of what has made his campaign so formidable. In South Carolina it was a huge black turnout with significant new voter participation, while in Virginia he pulled in huge numbers of white votes, finishing with 48 percent. A similar pattern prevailed in Georgia, where 43 percent of the white vote went for the Obama.

Only Tennessee, which gave Clinton a 13 point win, has resisted Obama's march across the South, not counting Clinton's "home" state of Arkansas, of course.

That was then, pre-Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Has the "landscape changed," as politicos like to say, after the electorate's introduction to Wright's fiery sermons? Maybe. The trouble for Clinton is she has considerable baggage of her own.

In North Carolina, especially in small and mid-size towns denuded of 250,000 furniture and light manufacturing jobs, NAFTA might as well be the Hitler-Stalin Pact. If both Clinton and Obama had to run from the treaty in Ohio and the Rust Belt, they'll have to be in dead sprint across the Tar Heel State. And Clinton simply has more—much more—pro-NAFTA weight to carry.

She tried to shed that burden in Winston-Salem the other day by calling for a "re-negotiation" of NAFTA, which just seems to be a fancy way of saying she was wrong for ever supporting the treaty. She also promised some $2.5 billion in workforce training programs to help make up for it all, one supposes.

Meanwhile, Obama was in Greensboro patiently explaining for the umpteenth time that he is, in fact, a Christian while bashing Clinton for being too tied to special interests. Obama also beat Clinton to the state's TV airwaves, putting up 30-second spots promising not to ship jobs overseas like you-know-who.

The early commitment of ad dollars shows that the Obama camp does not put much stock in one recent poll showing him with a 20-point lead in the state. The poll's methodology almost certainly overstates the pro-Obama turnout for the primary. The consensus view is that Obama now holds a lead, but of, at most, 10 points—and possibly little as five points among likely primary voters.

Because the race is relatively close, Clinton will no doubt soon move to counter the Obama ads in the state's metro cores. When she does, it may well be with the most direct and forceful attacks on Obama the campaign season has yet seen. Hillary, in point of fact, has nothing to gain by holding back. She must, to borrow Bill's old phrase from the Ken Starr days, "just win."

To that end, the political class in North Carolina is bracing for a heavy dose of Rev. Wright's oratory, offered up by pro-Hillary ads. It might not be pretty or artful, but the rough road is the only one left open to her.

Jeff Taylor
writes from North Carolina.