Rob Christensen

North Carolina a fly-over no more for Republican candidates

North Carolina is no longer a fly-over state when it comes to Republican presidential candidates.

At one time, GOP presidential primary candidates flew over North Carolina on the way to states that mattered in the nominating selection process – such as South Carolina and New Hampshire. But now Republican candidates are dropping in with increasing frequency.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was in Raleigh and Charlotte meeting privately with potential backers on Friday. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker will be speaking at the state Republican convention in Raleigh on June 5. So will a couple of long-shot GOP hopefuls – businessman Donald Trump and John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was in town in April. Physician Ben Carson, businesswoman Carly Fiorina and former Sen. Rick Santorum were here in March. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee visited in January.

This is likely just the warmup.

Early vote means visits

North Carolina has traditionally been ignored in the GOP primary season – the result of holding its primary in May long after the nomination has been decided. The one big exception was the March 23, 1976, primary between California Gov. Ronald Reagan and President Gerald Ford, which helped give birth to the Reagan revolution.

Tired of being ignored, the Republican legislature is moving North Carolina up in the process next year. It voted in 2013 to move the state’s presidential primaries – both Republican and Democrat – to the first Tuesday after South Carolina, which would be Feb. 23. That would make North Carolina the fourth state in the primary process behind the Iowa caucuses (Feb. 2), the New Hampshire primary (Feb. 9) and South Carolina (Feb. 20).

But the legislature failed to check with GOP party headquarters in D.C.

The Republican National Committee in 2012 passed rules designed to prevent all the states from holding their primaries early – a process known as front loading. As a result, North Carolina would be penalized by losing all but 12 of its 55 delegates to the national convention in Cleveland if the primary was held before March 1.

So last month, the state House voted 111-1 to change the date to March 1. The Senate has yet to vote on the change.

Although a new March 1 date would advance the primary by two months, North Carolina will still not get the same national spotlight or attention from candidates as does South Carolina.

That is because South Carolina is the first Southern test in the GOP presidential field. North Carolina would be one of seven states to hold the primary on March 1 – along with Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont and Virginia, as well as the Colorado caucuses.

We’ll likely see the presidential candidates sweeping in for regional swings through Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee, not camping out here as they do in South Carolina.

It’s anyone’s race

The GOP primary in North Carolina looks wide open at the moment.

Bush leads with 19 percent, followed by Walker with 16 percent, and with Cruz, Huckabee and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio tied at 11 percent. Carson has 9 percent, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is at 7 percent and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is at 6 percent, according to a statewide survey conducted April 2 through 5 by Public Policy Polling, a Raleigh-based polling firm with Democratic leanings. The poll of likely Republican primary voters had a 5.2 percentage-point margin of error, making it virtually meaningless in separating out candidates who are tightly packed together.

All of the Republicans match up well with Hillary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner, with Huckabee and Walker running the strongest, according to the poll.

The Republicans hope that whoever emerges from the primary will have a head start in the fall in North Carolina as a result of having campaigned here during the primary.

That is what happened for Democrat Barack Obama in 2008, who spent huge resources in North Carolina to defeat Hillary Clinton.

But if not, North Carolina Republicans are at least getting a close-up look at the GOP field for the first time in a generation.

Christensen: 919-829-4532;

Twitter: @oldpolhack