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Obama Factor Spells Trouble for Dole

Packed with tens of thousands of newly registered Democratic voters, Sen. Elizabeth Dole’s (R-N.C.) train to a second term may have already left the station.

Along with a handful of other typical Southern GOP strongholds, black voters in Dole’s home state are expected to turn out en masse for the presumed Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), perhaps undoing the wide margins of victory President Bush twice enjoyed in North Carolina and possibly putting Dole out of work in the process.

“In terms of the Obama factor, it’s anyone’s guess whether [North Carolina] will be one of his targets at the end of the day — there’s a lot of head fakes going on,” a North Carolina Republican operative said. “We’re going to count on the African-American vote to be huge.”

Just how big the black voter turnout in North Carolina will be is anyone’s guess, but the early indicators are staggering. Making up more than one-fifth of the state — nearly twice the national average — North Carolina’s black population likely is disproportionally represented in the 2.6 million Democratic voters who are registered in the state so far this cycle.

In contrast, Republicans have 1.9 million registered voters and 1.24 million North Carolinians are registered as “unaffiliated,” according to the North Carolina State Board of Elections.

Democrats have registered 121,000 new voters since the beginning of the year, and Republicans have registered about 13,000.

Last cycle, Democrats made up 45 percent of the electorate, while 35 percent registered as Republicans and 20 percent were not aligned with either party.

On Election Day, Dole will face a relatively unknown state Sen. Kay Hagan (D), an EMILY’s List candidate who had raised $1.5 million through mid-April. The well-financed incumbent has raised $6.7 million overall this cycle and headed into the summer with $3.2 million in the bank.

While Dole has the cash edge going into the summer, Obama already is softening up the terrain for downballot Democrats in the state.

“In the coming weeks, we will be building our movement for change in North Carolina because we believe that North Carolina voters deserve to hear what is at stake in this election,” Obama spokeswoman Amy Brundage said in a statement. “We’ll be working hard for Democratic candidates up and down the ticket in North Carolina.”

Although Obama’s campaign was vague about its long-term plans in North Carolina, his campaign appears to be laying down permanent groundwork there, including kicking off a recent tour focusing on economic issues in the state.

Although no campaign events are planned for the coming weeks with the presumptive nominee, Hagan said she is “looking forward to campaigning with Barack Obama” at some point.

“He represents the kind of change we need in the White House and the kind of change I’ll bring to the U.S. Senate,” Hagan said in a statement.

And while the state is now considered competitive, Obama’s campaign could turn its attention to traditional battlegrounds or other states as Election Day approaches. Still, as long as vast disparity in voter registration continues, the necessary damage to Dole could be done well before Nov. 4.

“It’s not clear what the Obama folks are going to do, but clearly they have enough money to play in North Carolina or anywhere,” a Democratic source said. “A lot of the investment that they would make would benefit Hagan and the rest of the ticket whether he’s still [campaigning in North Carolina] in the last month — because a lot of the money is going to go into voter registration.”

“If [Obama] puts any investment in the field early, that will pay huge dividends,” the source added.

John Anzalone, who polls for Hagan and other Democrats in North Carolina, said his surveys throughout this cycle suggest “a soft underbelly for Dole.” Add a competent candidate, decent fundraising and a battered Republican brand, Anzalone said, and Dole will have an uphill battle come the fall.

Anzalone also said a competitive governor’s race between Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue (D) and Charlotte Mayor Pat McCory (R) will also drive newly registered Democratic voters to the polls.

“You’ll have a string of really good races … and you won’t have a whole lot of people voting for [Obama] and not [for Democrats] down the ballot,” Anzalone said. “You’re going to see the bleed to the left this time.”

On the North Carolina ballot, the races are arranged top-to-bottom: presidential, Senate, House and governor.

But Hagan’s pollster did say that it’s “no mystery” that Southern “campaigns for U.S. Senate, governor or Congress run their own race and they’re a little more individual in their tone than in other places.”

Republicans claim Dole already is attempting to seize on this regional tendency by airing recent TV ads stressing her record on immigration.

A GOP operative called Hagan an “afterthought” and said she “is running against the political environment,” with the aid of Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer’s (N.Y.) deep pockets and black voters who are expected to come out heavily for Obama.

“The only way Sen. Dole loses this race is from a massive tsunami-type political environment,” the source said.

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