After President Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win North Carolina since Jimmy Carter in 1976, Obama's advisers and Democrats vowed to keep a laser-like focus in the state where the president eked out a 14,000-vote win.
But on the eve of the national convention in Charlotte, several polls show Obama in a close race with GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney for North Carolina, and many political analysts say the state is now tilting to Romney as Democratic voter enthusiasm dims and the former Massachusetts governor and GOP-aligned groups have nearly double the president's television advertising spending in the state.
"It took nearly a perfect situation for Obama to pull out a slim victory in 2008," says John Davis, a Raleigh-based political analyst. "Now all the momentum is going the Republicans' way."
Indeed, it's been a tough 3½ years for Democrats in the state.
North Carolina's economy has languished behind much of the country, and unemployment stands at 9.6%. A former North Carolina Democratic Party staffer filed a defamation suit against the state party after alleging earlier in the year that he was sexually harassed by the party's former executive director. Meanwhile, Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue saw her approval rating nose dive and isn't standing for re-election.
In May, North Carolinians voted in favor of inserting a prohibition against gay marriage in the state constitution - just a day before Obama announced he changed his position and endorsed same-sex marriage. The state's Republicans - who in 2010 took control of the state legislature for the first time since Reconstruction - have also reveled in the fact that 20% of North Carolina Democrats voted no preference over Obama in the May primary.
More independent voters
There are 116,000 fewer North Carolina voters registered as Democrats than there were at this point in 2008. Republicans are down 13,000 registered voters in the state, while independent voters have shot up by 270,000.
Jen Psaki, the Obama campaign's national press secretary, notes that in 2008, more than 50% of registrations in key states happened between August and November.
The Obama campaign is also planning a major voter registration and neighborhood organizing push in North Carolina that will coincide with the convention. "In clear contrast to the Republican convention, ours will be a working convention," says Stephanie Cutter, Obama's deputy campaign manager.
While several recent polls have Obama trailing Romney in the state, the difference between the two candidates remains within the margin of error in most polls.
The Obama campaign boasts of having a superior ground game in North Carolina that will help lift the president in what they predict will again be a tight election in the state. Obama has 49 field offices across the state compared with fewer than two dozen for Romney.
Democrats still hold a 760,000 voter registration edge in the state. And the state's demographic profile continues to shift to the Democrats' benefit as the proportion of minorities and non-native North Carolinians has increased.
Brad Woodhouse, the Democratic National Committee communications director, predicts a bump in the polls for Obama in the state after next week's convention. "I think the real story out of North Carolina is: Why isn't Romney performing better?" he asked.
Rob Lockwood, a North Carolina Republican Party spokesman, asked the same question about Obama, noting that the president's campaign advisers in North Carolina say they've continued to build their organization since the president's win in 2008.
"They brag about the millions they've invested, the time they've spent here - they didn't let it rot," Lockwood says. "Yet, they've had massive voter registration losses since 2008, the economy has done terribly. Those are facts."
Lockwood also says the Democratic party's registration advantage in the state is misleading, as many of the party's faithful are conservatives - known as "Jessecrats" after the late conservative GOP stalwart Sen. Jesse Helms- who traditionally vote Republican in presidential races and for conservative Democrats in statewide and congressional races.
And there are signs that excitement about Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, is growing in some corners of the state. Thousands showed up to the Romney-Ryan rally in High Point earlier this month when the Wisconsin congressman made his debut as Romney's vice president pick. Ryan drew big crowds again in Fayetteville last week.
"The presidential race is close, but it is going to expand in favor of Gov. Romney," Lockwood says. "North Carolina is an instinctively conservative state."
But there's much more at stake for Romney in North Carolina than there is for Obama, argues Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia. Without North Carolina, Romney's path to 270 electoral votes becomes more murky, Sabato says.
The Romney campaign won't call North Carolina a must-win, but it recognizes that the state could be crucial. "There are many paths for us to 270 (electoral votes)," says Rich Beeson, Romney's national political director. "Obviously it would be a lot easier with North Carolina, but there are many paths without it."
Even if Obama isn't able to win North Carolina, he's pulling off a tactical victory by forcing Romney to pour time and money into the state, Sabato says.
"It would be foolish to abandon it and just cede the territory to Romney," says Sabato, who predicts that Romney will ultimately win North Carolina. "Having the convention in Charlotte also aids that goal, making Romney spend time and money (in North Carolina) that he'd rather devote to other states."
Obama needs younger voters
In Chapel Hill, home of the University of North Carolina, members of the UNC Young Democrats chapter are acting as though Obama's chances in the Tar Heel State rests on their shoulders.
They may be right. In 2008, Obama won 74% of the 18-29 vote - the only age group he won - and he will need young voters to come out in droves again.
Classes only started last week, but the Young Democrats are already deep into their voter registration effort, signing up incoming freshmen during summer orientation and classmates moving into the dorms for the year.
In the coming days, the group will begin a get-out-the-vote effort that centers on encouraging students to take advantage of North Carolina's early voting period that begins Oct. 18. The students also have committed to canvassing six North Carolina counties to press Obama's message, says Austin Gilmore, president of the UNC Young Democrats.
"It's our job to deliver this county and ultimately the state for Barack Obama," Gilmore says.