WINSTON-SALEM — When Vice President Joe Biden flew in to the Triad last week, the presidential campaign trail was already well-worn.
Just days earlier, real estate mogul Donald Trump had jetted into a nearby airport. So had Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, co-chairman of Mitt Romneys presidential effort.
Nor was it just the candidates and their surrogates duking it out on the campaign trail. The campaigns and their allies have already plowed at least $10 million into commercials on the airwaves here to try to sway voters more in North Carolina than any other states except Florida, Virginia and Ohio.
This was five months before the Nov. 6 election. Although the calendar may still read spring, there was a fall-like intensity in the air as both campaigns tried to set the tone early in a key battleground state.
Campaign operatives have been pouring into the state. Dueling news releases are now the norm. News conferences are followed by counter-news conferences. Trackers are showing up to record opponents. And there was even a bit of disruption and jostling at a Raleigh event last week featuring Romney surrogate U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican.
Visiting politicians are immersing themselves in the state. Biden was trying out the local custard in Winston-Salem. Perry backpedaled slightly from earlier comments comparing North Carolina barbecue to road kill (He likes it just fine, but its not as good as Texas-style). Ryan discussed the merits of Wolfpack-turned-Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson. And Trump was talking Tar Heel real estate, having recently purchased The Point Lakes and Golf Club in Mooresville for $3 million.
100 rounds of golf
For residents of the usual presidential swing states, this may be routine stuff. But North Carolina, a traditionally Republican-leaning state in presidential campaigns that surprised much of the nation when it went for Barack Obama in 2008, has never been a high-priority area through an entire general election.
Caught by surprise in 2008, Republicans vow not to repeat their mistake again.
Its an intense six-month campaign, said Charles Black, a Romney strategist. We are treating it as a top priority like Florida or Ohio. We are treating North Carolina with just as much intensity.
The Romney campaign is playing catch up.
The Obama campaign has been working the state for the past year. It put the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. It has 15 offices around the state and has sent in a steady stream of surrogates. Obama has visited the state four times during the past six months, including an extended bus trip.
Romney has been here once.
With the polls showing North Carolina a tossup, both sides are trying to drive home their message in the early stages of the general election.
For Republicans, the message is fairly simple: The economy is not in good shape, and its time for new management. Romney, with his background in business and as governor of Massachusetts, is best equipped to help the economy recover, they say.
The Republicans hammer home that North Carolinas unemployment rate was 9.4 percent in April, among the highest in the country. And the national debt continues to climb. Republicans are asking voters whether theyre better off then they were four years ago.
Three and a half years, nearly 100 rounds of golf, Perry, the Texas governor and former presidential candidate, told the GOP convention in Greensboro last weekend. Barack Obama has exploded the debt in this country. He has passed a stimulus program to improve government and not the economy. He socialized health care. And he armed Mexican drug cartels. Admit it, America, 2008 was our national oops moment.
The campaigns are investing heavily in TV commercials. Romney made a major buy, springing for at least 3,700 points in North Carolinas three major markets, according to an NBC/SMG Delta analysis. The rule of thumb is that 1,000 points means that the average TV viewer will see the ad 10 times.
That has been buttressed with 2,135 points by American Crossroads GPS, a super PAC that is closely associated with Karl Rove, a key strategist for former President George W. Bush. The Obama campaign has paid for 3,300 points.
Last week, Crossroads spent $654,000 to air an ad that criticizes Obama for increasing the national debt, part of the PACs $2.7 million campaign in the state.
He is adding $4 billion in debt every day, borrowing from China for his spending, every second growing debt faster than our economy, says the ad. Tell Obama stop the spending.
Of the top 10 TV markets this year for presidential campaign advertising spending for the general election, three are in North Carolina with Greensboro-High Point third, Raleigh-Durham fifth and Charlotte eighth, according to NBC/SMG. The New York Times last week characterized the advertising blitz in key swing states as the earliest and heaviest concentration in modern politics.
The Republicans say they have to go on TV because the Democrats have a big head start in grass-roots organizing.
Obama on the air
Democrats say the economy is slowly on the rebound, and they portray the Republicans as obstructionists.
We have been through a lot of tough times in this country, Biden said in Winston-Salem. In 2008, the economy just about fell of the cliff because of previous policies. We lost 8 million jobs. ... But we always fight back. Under the presidents leadership we have had 27 straight months of private sector growth, 4 million new jobs. Its not enough. Its been up and down. We have to do more.
He said the president has laid out a plan to stimulate the economy, cutting taxes for small businesses that hire or raise wages and for companies that bring jobs home. The president is also pushing Congress to expand refinancing for homeowners, create a veterans jobs corps and invest in clean-energy manufacturing.
A day after Bidens appearance in the state, the Obama campaign began airing a TV commercial called Jobs that stressed the same points.
The Obama campaign also went up last week with a new ad questioning Romneys record in Massachusetts, spending $1.4 million in North Carolina second only to Florida in the size of the buy.
The new Obama ad says, in part: When Mitt Romney was governor, Massachusetts lost 40,000 manufacturing jobs a rate twice the national average and fell to 47th in job creation.
Democratic spokesmen noted North Carolina rated 13th in job creation at the same time that Romney was governor.
By Friday, the Romney campaign had an ad responding to the Obama ad. But in Durham, the Obama campaign had a Massachusetts legislator trashing Romneys record.
Blah, blah, blah
With the campaigning focused here, national figures are trading shots.
On Tuesday, Ryan sharply criticized the Obama record at a news conference outside Big Eds, a downtown Raleigh eatery, saying Obama has given us a nation of debt, a nation of doubt and a nation of decline with terrible jobs. The next day in Winston-Salem, Biden said Ryans budget plan would have a devastating impact on America.
The political parties and campaigns are already operating in high gear forming rapid response teams to send a blizzard of daily statements and news releases while holding news conferences and counter news conferences.
At a sidewalk news conference featuring Ryan in Raleigh, Frances Lippette held up a Democratic sign that read, Say No to Romney-Ryan Budget, while loudly saying blah, blah, blah while Ryan talked.
Ryan quipped that were used to that where I came from, referring to the raucous politics of Wisconsin.
When Biden showed up in Winston-Salem, a small group of protesters displayed signs such as No Jobs No Hope Normal and carried sticks with photographs of the enlarged heads of former presidential candidate John Edwards and embattled state party chairman David Parker.
And its only early June.