RALEIGH — President Barack Obama can't get enough of North Carolina and its people - or at least that's the impression he gives in a series of interviews to anchors in local television markets.
He tells WSOC anchor Natalie Pasquarella of Charlotte that he hopes next year's Democratic National Convention will highlight "how wonderful Charlotte is." He tells WXII anchor Cameron Kent of Winston-Salem how "I love the people of North Carolina." He jokes with WRAL anchor David Crabtree of Raleigh about playing one-one-one with Carolina basketball star Tyler Hansbrough and getting the worst of it.
He talks about serious issues as well - his jobs program, the economy, the war in Iraq.
Normally, it is the big-name national anchors - Brian Williams, Scott Pelley, and Wolf Blitzer - who get invited to the White House for sit-down interviews with the president. Now it's local anchors like Larry Stogner of WTVD of Durham who are being invited to Washington for short interviews with Obama.
The TV interviews are part of a White House effort, using the power of incumbency, to lavish attention on North Carolina a year before the election. North Carolina is regarded by both Democrats and Republicans as a critical state in the 2012 elections. After years of being ignored, the Democrats showed that North Carolina could be a competitive state, and Obama is making a major effort to carry the state a second time.
Some of the White House efforts have been high-profile, such as President Obama's two-day bus trip earlier this month across western North Carolina. It was the president's fourth appearance in the state during the past 12 months, including an appearance in Wake County in September.
The interviews and speeches are just the most visible part of the White House effort to woo North Carolinians.
Obama's bus trip was followed, for example, by visits to Duke University by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, by Education Secretary Arne Duncan to Wake Technical Community College outside of Raleigh, and by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner to both the Research Triangle Park, where he met with business and education leaders, and to Wilmington, where he toured a Corning fiber optics manufacturing plant.
This week, Valerie Jarrett, the president's senior adviser, will be in Charlotte on Wednesday to address a women's conference, and on Thursday, Neal Wolin, Deputy Secretary of the Treasury, will talk at a housing conference in Raleigh.
State Republican Party Chairman Robin Hayes, who pilots his own plane, was surprised last Tuesday when he saw Air Force II, the plane normally used for the vice president, parked on the tarmac at Raleigh Durham International Airport.
"It was pretty amazing to see Air Force II sitting on the ramp to bring the secretary of education to Wake Tech," Hayes said. "The taxpayers are paying for this campaign. A lot of that is always done, but this is an overdose like I've never seen before."
Although the White House billed the president's two-day western North Carolina swing as non-political, Obama used the occasion to lambaste the Republican Congress.
"They want to gut environmental regulations," Obama said at West Wilkes High School.
"They want to roll back Wall Street reform so that we end up with the same financial system we had that got us into this mess in the first place. And they want to repeal health care reform so that 30 million people won't have health insurance. That is what they call their Real American Jobs Act. It's inspiring stuff."
That prompted Sen. John McCain, his Republican opponent in 2008, to complain to the Senate that while Obama has a right to complain about GOP policies, it is inappropriate "on the taxpayer's dime since it is clearly campaigning."
But the line between policy and politics has been now been erased, said Michael Munger, a political science professor at Duke University.
"There has been a tradition, more and more, of a permanent campaign," Munger said. "I would say it started with (Bill) Clinton. The distinction between policy and campaigning was blurred. But now it has been obliterated."
It would be one thing, Munger said, if Obama was campaigning in states where several members of Congress were undecided on the president's jobs bill. But Munger said the president's main calculus seemed to be that North Carolina is a key swing state in next year's election.
"Using the power of incumbency in such a blatant way for electioneering is new," Munger said.
Gary Pearce, a veteran Democratic strategist not connected to the Obama campaign, said the president is in a tough re-election fight in a state that traditionally leans Republicans in presidential races, facing a difficult economy not of his own making.
"You use every tool you got," Pearce said. "The other side is going to throw everything at you. It's a tough uphill climb for him. He is using everything at his disposal. It's tough for a president to get re-elected in this kind of economy. But I think Obama is still pretty well-liked. He is certainly better liked than anybody else out there."
Pearce said North Carolinians may not be used to this level of activity, but it is a reflection that it is one of the most critical states in next year's presidential elections.
"North Carolina is the new Ohio," Pearce said. "I think you could argue we are now ground zero."