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Salena Zito: North Carolina closer than in '08

| Saturday, Sept. 8, 2012, 5:05 p.m.

CHARLOTTE

Tom Olson is good at what he does, serving the Sunday brunch crowd at Harper's Restaurant in the Queen City's upscale South Park neighborhood. He cheerfully hovers over a large family asking for menu recommendations.

Olson hesitantly talks politics until he is asked about President Obama.

“I voted for him in 2008,” he admits, but now is “very unhappy with him.”

Obama's first term soured him on all politicians. “I find him very dishonest. Very dishonest.”

North Carolina went for the Democrat in the 2008 presidential election, the first time since 1976, for a number of reasons: First, the national climate was favorable to Democrats; second, Obama consolidated the black vote even more than other Democrats; third, he won massively among those ages 18 to 29, while losing every other age demographic.

Patrick Kanetaka, 44, of Raleigh, N.C., liked Obama “a lot” in 2008. He was tired of the Bush years and thought Republican candidate John McCain would just be more of the same.

“It's fair to say, today I have buyer's remorse,” he says.

Kanetaka is voting for Republican Mitt Romney this time. As for Obama, he says, “It's the overreach, the spending, the lack of leadership or connection on the economy.”

In 2008, Obama narrowly lost the 30-44 age group that Olson and Kanetaka fall into, according to Geoffrey Skelley, a University of Virginia political analyst. “And he lost both the 45-64 and 65-plus age groups to McCain,” Skelley says.

By running up his margins among minorities and young people while losing older white voters, Obama edged McCain by about 14,000 votes in North Carolina, says Skelley. “This all helped Beverly Perdue down-ticket win the governor's office.”

Not very popular and with little chance of winning, Perdue is not running for re-election this year. Recent polling showed her disapproval rating at 59 percent, her approval at just 30 percent, Skelley says.

“Today, the Republican challenger, Pat McCrory, is leading Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton by a fair amount, which is why the seat is seen as likely Republican,” he says of North Carolina's gubernatorial race.

The economy has to be the main thing working against Obama here, as it is all over the country, he adds.

“That was it for me,” says Victor Reavis, a Charlotte Democrat who voted for Obama in 2008 and has had four jobs in four years. “Small businesses don't convert contract employees into full-time employees in this economy,” he explains.

The father of two small children says being “a one-income family” makes health care a challenge. He moved away from Obama over the president's handling of the economy, the way the health-care bill was pushed without Republican input, and federal spending.

“All of it, all of it, is just way off from what he promised. There was no working together,” he says.

North Carolina provided Obama's narrowest state victory in 2008. If the 2012 contest is even closer, as everyone anticipates, an improvement in Republican performance would be seen most immediately in North Carolina, according to Skelley.

“I think Romney mainly has the economy going for him (here), as is the case nationally,” says Skelley. “That's the issue he's got to win on, as it's Obama's biggest problem.”

While some social issues may favor Romney, a recent Charlotte Observer poll found the Republican candidate up 3 percentage points over Obama on the question, “Which candidate shares your values?” So it's a pretty close race.

What could work for Obama in North Carolina, however, is demographics: Blacks will support him, though the gay-marriage issue is impacting his support among black evangelicals; the same is true for a great majority of Hispanics in this state.

Reavis, an information-technology project manager, drives more than 120 miles a day to and from work; gas prices, like the rising costs of everything else, are hitting his family budget hard.

“The country is now more divided than it ever was,” he says. “And where are the jobs, the stability?”

Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media (412-320-7879 or szito@tribweb.com).

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