North Carolina was supposed to be the Tuesday primary state that presidential candidates flew over on their way to more competitive states such as Florida and Ohio.
For months, public polls of North Carolina voters have said that Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton were likely to duplicate their easy wins last month in South Carolina.
But judging by the candidates’ schedules, North Carolina could end up being as much in play as the other four states voting Tuesday: Florida, Ohio, Illinois and Missouri.
On Monday, former Secretary of State Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders will each address Charlotte rallies in hopes of spurring big turnouts among their base of supporters – African-Americans and women for Clinton, young people and liberals for Sanders – in the Democratic primary. For both, it’s their second stop in North Carolina in less than a week; Clinton campaigned Thursday in Durham, while Sanders was in Raleigh on Friday.
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On the Republican side, too, North Carolina is getting a lot of last-minute attention – at least from billionaire businessman Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who rallied more than 3,000 supporters Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord. It was his third North Carolina rally in less than a week.
“North Carolina is a battleground,” Cruz told his audience.
Trump, who spoke to more than 10,000 supporters last week in Fayetteville, is returning to North Carolina one more time before Tuesday’s vote. He’ll be in Hickory on Monday for a 10 a.m. rally at Lenoir-Rhyne University. It’s expected to draw a large crowd of supporters as well as many protesters – both inside and outside the school’s P.E. Monroe Auditorium.
Last Wednesday’s rally in Fayetteville was disrupted every few minutes by protesters. Many of them held banners criticizing Trump for comments he’s made disparaging Muslims, undocumented immigrants and other minorities.
Also at that rally, a white Trump supporter sucker-punched a young black protester as he was being escorted out of the Crown Coliseum by security. A video of the incident went viral and launched a national conversation – including on front pages and in TV news reports – about violence at Trump rallies.
John Franklin McGraw, who punched Rakeem Jones, was later charged with assault. On Sunday, Trump confirmed he is considering paying legal fees for the 78-year-old McGraw.
Trump’s other GOP rivals – Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich – have received the most endorsements from top N.C. Republicans. U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., is backing Rubio, while former Gov. Jim Martin recently endorsed Kasich, But both candidates have been no-shows in North Carolina in recent months as they focus on do-or-die battles against front-runner Trump in their home states.
That has effectively turned the North Carolina GOP primary into a head-to-head contest between Cruz and Trump.
The Republican-controlled North Carolina legislature moved the state’s primary date this year from May to March, hoping that would give the state’s voters more influence on the presidential race.
And despite predictions that both parties’ 2016 races would be decided by mid-March, Tuesday’s vote in North Carolina could matter. Up for grabs are 107 Democratic delegates and 72 Republican ones.
“In less than 48 hours, the polls open in five large and delegate-rich states,” the Sanders campaign said in a fundraising email Sunday. “These are the most important two days of our campaign.”
Though Clinton is ahead by more than 20 points in the latest North Carolina polls, her supposed lead in Michigan last week vanished and Sanders narrowly won there. The trade issue, which hurt Clinton in Michigan, could also be a factor in North Carolina, which has lost many factory jobs to cheaper foreign competition.
North Carolina has an additional lure for Cruz: Unlike Ohio and Florida, winner-take-all states on the GOP side that Cruz is not expected to win, North Carolina has no favorite son on the ballot and awards its Republican delegates proportionally. So Cruz doesn’t have to upset Trump, who has been ahead by double digits in most North Carolina polls, to pick up delegates here.
Still, Cruz told those at the Sunday rally that “right now in North Carolina, Donald Trump and I are effectively tied. It’s neck and neck here in the state of North Carolina.”
Asked later by the Observer to identify his source for such optimism, Cruz would say only that “we are monitoring the race closely, and I can tell you that … Donald and I are within the margin of error with each other. It’s going to depend on turnout – who shows up and votes on Tuesday.”
He urged each of his supporters Sunday to take nine other voters with them on Tuesday and all vote for him.
Cruz also implored Republican voters who formerly supported candidates who’ve dropped out of the race to “join our team.” He has invited backers of Rubio and Kasich to switch to him.
Cruz argued that only he and Trump have viable paths to winning enough delegates – 1,237 – to win the nomination at the party’s July convention in Cleveland. And, citing polls, he predicted that Trump as the nominee would lose to Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.
The Sunday rally at the speedway featured a long list of warmup speakers, including conservative TV host Glenn Beck and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who ran for president this year and endorsed Cruz after dropping out.
When he hit the stage, Cruz threw the crowd some partisan red meat by alluding to Fiorina’s tough attacks on Clinton, whose use of a private email server as secretary of state has been part of an FBI investigation.
“Carly Fiorina keeps Hillary Clinton up at night,” Cruz said, “tossing and turning in her jail cell.”
Candidates in area Monday
Donald Trump: 10 a.m. rally at Lenoir-Rhyne University’s P.E. Monroe Auditorium in Hickory. Doors open at 7 a.m. Tickets available at www.donaldjtrump.com.
Bernie Sanders: Late afternoon at PNC Music Pavilion in Charlotte. Doors open at 1:30 p.m. Register at https://goberniesanders.com.
Hillary Clinton: 7:30 p.m. rally at Grady Cole Center in Charlotte. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. Register at www.hillaryclinton.com.