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’12 sizing up as unrivaled year in N.C. politics

RALEIGH (AP) — North Carolina voters may never feel more loved — or pestered — in 2012 by politicians and others anxious to persuade them on electoral choices.
The state is on the cusp of an unparalleled year in politics, anchored by the Democratic National Convention gathering in Charlotte in September, when President Barack Obama will be nominated for a second term. North Carolina was already poised to be a battleground state because Obama won it by just 14,200 votes in 2008.
There’s the likely rematch between Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue and Republican Pat McCrory, which has the markings of a fierce contest between two political veterans who four years ago waged the closest gubernatorial election since 1972.
The Republican majority in the Legislature will aim to keep hold of both chambers earned in 2010 for the first time in 140 years. Democratic incumbents in Congress will be fighting for survival because their seats became vulnerable when new maps drawn by state lawmakers favored Republicans.
All seats for Congress, the Legislature and Council of State are on the ballot.

“It has the potential to be a perfect storm. You just have all of those races at various levels (and) all being very competitive simultaneously,” said Eric Heberlig, an associate political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “That is just going to magnify the level of media attention …. We’re going to be sick of campaign commercials by next Election Day.”

By the spring, millions of additional campaign dollars also could be injected into the state before a referendum on the May 8 primary ballot to place a gay marriage ban amendment in the state constitution. Advocates consider the vote a bellwether on gay rights in the U.S. It’s possible the primary could be delayed if Democrats and civil rights groups persuade judges the redistricting maps must be redrawn or are likely unconstitutional.

The Democratic convention begins Sept. 3 in Charlotte and Election Day will be Nov. 6.

The convention is expected to bring 35,000 people to Charlotte, including 6,000 delegates and 15,000 members of the media worldwide. The 2008 Democratic convention in Denver brought a $266 million benefit to its metropolitan area.

Advocates on both sides of the political aisle welcome the weeklong convention, which will help energize and organize the Democrat faithful heading into November, said Scott Falmlen, a Democratic consultant and former executive director of the state Democratic Party.

State Republican Party spokesman Rob Lockwood said the event will give GOP activists the opportunity to link more closely what he calls the failed policies of Obama with Perdue and other Democrats because they’ll be together.

Falmlen said Perdue would be wise not to distance herself from the president, who became the first Democrat since 1976 to put the state in the party’s electoral column. The Obama campaign already has four offices in the state and is working on voter registration drivers and other gatherings to attract volunteers that helped Perdue edge McCrory in 2008.

“The Obama campaign is going to be putting all kinds of resources into North Carolina that will have residual benefit to the governor and every Democrat on the ticket,” Falmlen said.

McCrory, the former Charlotte mayor, is certain to attack Perdue for her handling of the state economy and will attempt to capitalize on any link to the national Democratic Party. At the convention “the rest of the state will see much of the very liberal ideas that are coming from the federal government that the current governor agrees with,” McCrory said in a recent interview.

Perdue, on the other hand, appears ready to link McCrory to the General Assembly’s Republican leadership, whom she’s blamed for thousands of public education job losses and for health care cuts in the GOP-penned budget that let a temporary extra penny on the sales tax expire. Perdue says she’s fought to protect education.

“The 2012 election will be a referendum on these two competing visions for North Carolina’s future,” Perdue campaign spokesman Marc Farinella said. “North Carolina’s voters do not share the anti-education values held by McCrory and the Republican leaders in the Legislature.”

As far as governing, the Legislature’s session to adjust the second year of the two-year budget begins May 16 and likely will go six to eight weeks. Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, still view the Republican majority’s job to control spending and reduce regulation to get the state’s economy out of a ditch they say was caused by Democratic overspending and taxes.

Perdue’s record 16 vetoes in 2011 chronicled the enmity between the Democratic administration and the Republican majority. Working together in 2012 could be even more difficult in a hyper-political environment.

Perdue “wants to continue to do things in the way that the Democrats who had controlled this state for generations did things,” Berger said. Since the Republicans ran on something different, he added, “it becomes difficult to bridge that gap.”

Senate Minority Whip Josh Stein, D-Wake, said Republicans could choose to work in the 2012 session to pass legislation designed to attract emerging economic sectors to the state. Stein said Republicans spent their time imprudently in 2011 on issues such as abortion, the gay marriage amendment and trying to repeal the Racial Justice Act.

“Pursuing an extreme agenda is just not the right priority when we are facing double-digit unemployment,” Stein said.

Both major parties have high expectations for November 2012 that should rev up their political bases.

Republicans want to hold the Executive Mansion for the first time in 20 years, retain control of the General Assembly and stop Obama from winning. Democrats want the Charlotte nomination of Obama to guide him and Perdue to re-election and for the party to take back the Legislature.

“If you’re interested in politics,” Berger said, “these are years that get your juices flowing.”

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