RALEIGH — Earlier this month, in the days after the Georgia presidential primary, Chuck Campbell drove five hours to Augusta to collect leftover Rick Santorum signs.
Campbell, a volunteer organizer for Santorum’s nascent North Carolina campaign, piled them in his car and brought them to Raleigh to give out to the GOP candidate’s N.C. supporters.
For him, the campaign was just getting started.
“We are recruiting volunteers as much as possible, so that when Rick Santorum and his entourage come in town, they will have a working organization in place and they aren’t starting from scratch,” Campbell said.
As one of three statewide coordinators, Campbell is not an official part of Santorum’s presidential campaign. But he serves a key role in the former Pennsylvania senator’s insurgent effort against the leading Republican candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
The candidates are turning their attention to North Carolina, where the May 8 primary is emerging as a potential battleground in the protracted, numbers-driven GOP contest.
North Carolina’s 55 delegates are the third biggest prize in the next six weeks, behind only the New York and Pennsylvania primaries in April.
Romney is leading the delegate count with 568, compared with 273 for Santorum and 135 for Newt Gingrich, according to an Associated Press tally updated after Santorum won the Louisiana primary Saturday. A candidate needs 1,144 to secure the nomination.
Gingrich, the former House Speaker, is expected to campaign Wednesday in Raleigh, meeting with voters and touting endorsements from local elected officials. Romney will visit the state April 18, the day before early voting begins, for campaign fundraisers in Raleigh and Charlotte.
Gingrich named a local leadership team and hired a Raleigh political consultant in December. Romney’s campaign has recruited prominent North Carolina supporters, including U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, and has local coordinators on the ground.
Of the major candidates, Santorum appears to be the least organized in the state. But supporters like Campbell believe momentum is building. And the numbers are leaning in his direction. A Survey USA poll, released last week by WRAL-TV after Santorum’s big showing in the Alabama and Mississippi primaries, gave him a 34 percent to 26 percent advantage over Romney. Gingrich had 18 percent and Texas congressman Ron Paul won 10 percent.
At the Wake County GOP convention last week, Campbell made his pitch to a steady stream of Republicans supporting Santorum, including many converts from other candidates. But he still was hit with a persistent question: Can he win?
By now, Campbell’s response is practiced. “Santorum can win North Carolina if people vote with their heart,” the former Christian talk radio and TV host told Judy Bevan, an Apex retiree.
Bevan’s next two questions were also familiar to Campbell. “Do you know when he’s coming here?” she asked. No, he replied.
“Do you have an office yet?” she asked. “The office is my den, and the trunk of my car,” he said.
Campbell, a 50-year-old self-employed IT consultant, calls himself a social conservative. He said he admired Santorum from his days in the U.S. Senate. “In my mind, there is no dichotomy between fiscal conservatives and social conservatives,” he said. “I see Santorum more as a full-package conservative.”
Bevan, who retrieved a Santorum yard sign from Campbell, called Santorum “genuine” – a defining point, she said, compared with the Republican front runner. “Romney seems a little plastic. It makes you wonder if he’s ever pumped gas,” she said.
John Calhoun, a 60-year-old electrical engineer from Cary, attended the Wake County event wearing a sweater vest embroidered with Santorum’s campaign logo. It was a gift for making a contribution to the campaign.
Like many voters, Calhoun cycled through other Republican candidates, Gingrich and Herman Cain, before Santorum impressed him in the debates. “Santorum is the one that put the word freedom in the conversation about the direction of our country,” Calhoun said. “The question of how much government we are going to have is a question of freedom, a question of liberty.”
Still, Santorum’s supporters like Calhoun and Campbell acknowledge his path to the nomination is narrow.
“More than likely, it’s going to be a convention where the candidate will be nominated from the floor,” Campbell said. “While a long shot, Rick Santorum can make up ground.”