ASHEVILLE, North Carolina (Reuters) - The stakes are so high in North Carolina for the November 6 presidential election that Republicans have called in the cavalry - party supporters from South Carolina.
They are determined not to repeat mistakes of 2008, when North Carolina Republicans got caught flatfooted by well-organized Democrats who helped Barack Obama beat John McCain in the state by just 14,177 votes.
The party’s aggressive grassroots effort includes a deal with South Carolina - a reliably Republican state - to send 1,000 volunteers to its northern neighbor to help get out the vote. Volunteers who stay in South Carolina will also make thousands of phone calls to North Carolina voters before Election Day.
“It’s a natural fit between North and South Carolina because we work so closely together,” state Republican chairman Robin Hayes said in an interview, adding there were lots of Republicans in South Carolina who wanted to help.
“It demonstrates how much enthusiasm there is,” he said.
Republicans would love to embarrass the Democrats, who awarded their national convention to Charlotte, North Carolina, in part as incentive for a repeat of 2008, when the Democrats won the state for the first time in a quarter century.
Obama’s campaign manager, Jim Messina, said in a Web video message this week that the campaign knew swing states like North Carolina would be tough but he was confident that grassroots organizing would boost the president to victory in November.
“While polls say it is ‘too close to call’ in North Carolina what matters to me is this: We’ve already registered 83,000 voters this cycle in North Carolina,” Messina said. “Organizing on the ground, talking to voters ... That’s how you win.”
Hayes and top Republicans know they will be hard-pressed to match Obama’s well-oiled grassroots machine in the state, where some volunteers have been working since the 2008 election.
Though opinion polls show the race is still up for grabs, Republicans feel momentum is on their side after taking control of the state legislature in 2010 and after winning passage of an amendment banning gay marriage earlier this year.
They also hope to capitalize on North Carolinians’ widespread dissatisfaction with Democratic Governor Bev Perdue and a sexual harassment scandal in the state’s Democratic Party.
Republicans are venturing out farther and much earlier than in 2008, opening up four “Victory Centers” of phone banks so far including the newest one in Asheville, an arts hub in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Political experts say Republicans learned from 2008 and realized they needed to set up shop even in more areas like Asheville if they want to win the state this year. While Asheville, known for its organic food and emphasis on green living, is mainly Democratic, the surrounding counties are much more conservative.
Pollster Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling said help from South Carolina field workers and recruiting Republicans around Asheville showed the party was on the offensive.
“It really is a state where every little thing can make a difference,” said Jensen. “This really has the potential for being the closest state in the country.”
Jensen said PPP had conducted 19 polls so far pitting Obama against presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney. Eighteen of 19 times the two were within 3 percentage points of each other.
At the launch of the new Victory Center, tucked into a strip mall alongside a gym and near a military recruiting office, veteran Republican volunteer Carroll Wray welcomed help from South Carolina.
Wray, from Horse Shoe, in a conservative rural district about 25 miles south of Asheville, said he would work hard to round up volunteers to staff phone banks to make sure Obama does not get re-elected.
“For the most part, people want Obama moved on,” said Wray. “There’s mistrust - they are uncomfortable with his long-term plans and his not fulfilling what he promised.”
Hayes, the party chairman, was not so outwardly optimistic. But he said frustration with the sagging economy and a lack of jobs will help Republicans.
“Burn these phones up,” he told volunteers, standing in the middle of a bank of 14 telephones as the Asheville center was opened. “Get those phones going, get those doors knocked on. Be out there - not as talkers, not as preachers but as folks who are listening to people who disgusted, dismayed, upset.”
Democratic operatives admit they face an uphill battle to win the state, but are confident they can keep interest alive among young people who voted in record numbers in 2008 and who were key to Obama’s success in the state.
“I really don’t think that youth engagement is going to be an issue in this election,” said Tori Taylor, a recent graduate of University of North Carolina at Charlotte and a former leader of the state’s College Democrats.
Taylor, an Obama volunteer who focuses mainly on young people, said she did not sense much interest in Romney among independent or unaffiliated student voters.
“Mitt Romney’s not the candidate for us but President Obama has proven he cares about young people ... he has a track record of passing legislation and coming out in support of things that are important to us and our generation,” said Taylor.
Steven Greene, a political scientist at North Carolina State, said a Democratic victory this year would likely be even narrower than in 2008, when Obama won the state by less than 1 percent.
In the end, Greene said, it was a question of turnout.
“The big question for me is the youth turnout and the youth enthusiasm. A certain number of them have been disillusioned,” Greene said. “But Obama remains much more popular among young people than his Republican counterparts.”
Cheryl Carter-Ellis, a 50-year-old mother of three and volunteer for Obama since 2007, said enthusiasm among Democrats was beginning to build in the run-up to the election.
She said she had expected voters to be hesitant about Obama in the difficult economy.
“It kind of shocked me, I was expecting to see some of that frustration,” said Carter-Ellis. “But people seem to understand that in the job of president you have to make sure that everyone gets a fair shot and that’s what this president has done.”
Greene predicted that Obama would likely hold on to the strong support of African American voters he had in 2008. Some political experts had predicted that Obama’s decision to support gay marriage - announced the day after North Carolina voted to ban it - could hurt him among black voters in the state.
North Carolina voters rejected same sex marriage last month, approving an amendment to ban it by a 3-to-2 margin.
But a recent PPP survey showed that African Americans in the state were shifting their views on same sex marriage in the wake of Obama’s announcement, though a majority still opposed it.
Matt Towery, publisher of the Southern Political Report, said Obama’s move to support gay marriage was calculated to “rev up” liberal white voters in North Carolina to get them to vote in November.
“If you can get people upset, you might be able to increase the vote,” Towery said.
Editing by Andy Sullivan and Doina Chiacu