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Christensen: North Carolina presidential primary unlikely to be crucial

Sen. Marco Rubio speaks during a campaign rally Saturday at the N.C. State Fairground's Gov. James E. Holshouser Building.
Sen. Marco Rubio speaks during a campaign rally Saturday at the N.C. State Fairground's Gov. James E. Holshouser Building. tlong@newsobserver.com

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s appearance at the State Fairgrounds on Saturday marked the 2016 launch of North Carolina’s presidential primary season.

It also showed that North Carolina matters once again in presidential primaries – something that has been rare.

For that you can thank the legislature, which moved North Carolina’s traditional back-of-the-pack primary – usually held the first Tuesday in May – to March 15 to make the state more relevant.

But the new date so far hasn’t brought a rush of candidate visits – just occasional drop-ins by Republicans such as Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush and Ben Carson, and Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

And while North Carolina is again relevant, it’s still not a top priority for primary candidates.

North Carolina’s primary is now near the middle of the pack. Twenty-four states will hold primaries or caucuses before North Carolina, starting with the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1.

When the action does get to North Carolina, the state will share the stage that day with primaries in Florida, Illinois, Missouri and Ohio.

And Florida and Ohio could overshadow North Carolina because they are larger and are winner-take-all states, while the Tar Heel State’s delegates are awarded proportionally. (If the top candidate wins 35 percent of the vote here, he or she gets 35 percent of the delegates.)

All of this could affect how much time the candidates spend in North Carolina.

But there are other variables. Karl Rove, former President George W. Bush’s chief strategist, has predicted that the Republican nomination actually could be settled on the Ides of March if one candidate takes both Florida and Ohio.

But that depends on whether the field has been whittled down. If Bush and Rubio, both from Florida, are still in the race, the other candidates are likely to bypass Florida and spend more time in North Carolina. The candidates are also likely to give short shrift to Ohio if Ohio Gov. John Kasich is still running.

According to the most recent polls, Trump and Clinton hold commanding leads among prospective North Carolina primary voters. The polls may look very different nine weeks from now. But in early December, Trump was leading the GOP field in North Carolina with 33 percent, followed by Cruz with 16 percent and Rubio and Carson with 14 percent each, according to a survey by Public Policy Polling, a Raleigh-based firm. On the Democratic side, Clinton was leading Sanders by a 60-21 percent margin in the same poll.

There are several things to think about here.

Evangelicals compose a substantial portion of the North Carolina Republican Party, and if Carson continues his decline, that should help Cruz.

North Carolina has traditionally been Bush Country, but that has been in the general election. It is no longer certain that Jeb Bush will even be a viable candidate by March 15. If he sinks, many of the business conservatives who initially leaned toward him probably will migrate to Rubio.

On the Democratic side, where the field is much smaller, there is a chance that the outcome of the nomination process will be evident by the time North Carolina Democrats vote.

North Carolina presidential primaries have really mattered only three times.

▪  In 1972, in the so-called Dixie Classic, Alabama Gov. George Wallace decisively defeated former North Carolina Gov. Terry Sanford in the Democratic primary here, riding a white backlash against busing, school integration and campus unrest. That effectively ended Sanford’s bid to offer a more moderate Southern voice in the Democratic primary fight.

▪  In 1976, California Gov. Ronald Reagan defeated President Gerald Ford in the North Carolina GOP primary, reviving his national ambitions and boosting his rise to the presidency in 1980. That vote also helped make the Republican Party more conservative.

▪  In 2008, Hillary Clinton launched a last stand in an effort to derail the candidacy of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama in the North Carolina Democratic primary. Obama’s victory here doomed whatever chances Clinton had.

So North Carolina primary voters have advanced the interests of an unlikely trio — George Wallace, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama.

It seems unlikely that North Carolina will play such a dramatic or decisive role nine weeks from now.

But in the fall, North Carolina – based on the closeness of recent general elections — is likely to be one of the bellwether states that could help decide who will be president in 2017.

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