CHARLOTTE — On the day her campaign announced an endorsement from Gov. Mike Easley, Sen. Hillary Clinton told voters in Charlotte to treat Tuesday's primary as a hiring decision.
"Think about it as if you're hiring a surgeon to perform an operation on a loved one," she told more than 4,000 supporters at Time-Warner Cable Arena. "Hire somebody who is prepared on Day One."
Clinton laced her 45-minute speech with policy initiatives on everything from health care to gas prices to ending the Iraq war. Earlier, in Concord, where 300 supporters braved a downpour outside Troutman's Bar-B-Q, she promised to create jobs for an area devastated by the loss of textile employment.
Trailing by double digits in most state polls, Clinton got a star's welcome at the Charlotte arena. Greeted by Bobcats owner Bob Johnson, she entered to a darkened arena with spotlights dancing over the crowd.
But her visit came as many Democrats worry that the prolonged and increasingly bitter primary battle between Clinton and Barack Obama could hurt the party in November. Interviews with several supporters reflected what many polls have found: If she loses the nomination, they may not vote for Obama.
Clinton didn't mention Obama by name. Instead she continued to cast herself as the only candidate ready to lead.
"We need a president with the strength and experience to get into the Oval Office on Day One and turn this country around," she said to thunderous applause.
She praised the booming economy and budget surplus that marked her husband's administration. She pledged to create jobs "you can't export" in the so-called green economy and threatened to "take tax breaks away from any company that moves jobs out of North Carolina."
Mike Curtis, a Concord Democrat, likes Clinton's experience and her interest in affordable health care. He said he voted for George W. Bush twice.
But there are signs that lines in the primary are hardening.
An Observer poll this month found 20 percent of Clinton's supporters in North Carolina would vote for presumptive GOP nominee John McCain if Obama wins. And 13 percent of Obama supporters said they'd vote for McCain if he doesn't.
A national Gallup Poll last month found even higher percentages: 28 percent of Clinton supporters and 19 percent of Obama supporters said they'd vote for McCain if their candidate didn't win.
"I just feel more comfortable with Hillary Clinton," said Eric Vollmer, 32, an IT specialist at the arena event who said he'd "stay home" if Obama wins. "I feel like she's got my best interests in mind. I don't know that I could say the same about Obama."