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Democrats encounter bumps on the road to Charlotte

Friday - 8/31/2012, 4:07pm  ET

Associated Press

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - When Democrats from around the country gather next week in Charlotte to nominate President Barack Obama for a second term, some may not feel completely at home despite the Southern hospitality.

While the party was eager last year to pick a convention city that would help it expand its foothold in the New South, the selection of Charlotte has been a source of consternation among key constituencies and uncertainty among Democratic strategists.

Gay rights activists, for example, plan to protest for same-sex marriage in a state where North Carolina voters easily passed a constitutional amendment banning it. Members of another key Democratic group, organized labor, intend to picket, too, in part because union leaders are unhappy Democrats picked a state long viewed as hostile to them.

Even North Carolina Democrats have found the state to be cooler lately, with Republicans winning control of the state legislature in 2010 and considered favorites to capture the governor's mansion this year.

And if Democrats were hoping that North Carolina would provide a narrative to support the president's case that the economy is on the rebound, they must be disappointed.

The state has an unemployment rate of 9.6 percent _ one of the highest in the country. The Charlotte metro rate is even higher at 10 percent, making it more difficult to portray the city of 750,000 as on the cusp of recovery after its once-soaring banking industry tumbled.

"The plan was that Charlotte would allow them to give the message that the banks went down, but Charlotte is coming back, just like the country," said Eric Heberlig, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. Heading into next week, he added, "it's harder to use Charlotte as the place for the national economic turnaround, driven by Obama economic policies."

Democrats remain hopeful that the convention will help launch Obama to a repeat of his upset victories in North Carolina and neighboring Virginia in 2008. Polls show Obama and Republican Mitt Romney are running neck and neck in the Tar Heel state, where Democrats still have a comfortable edge in voter registration and voters have demonstrated a progressive streak.

"There are a lot of things in his favor," said state Rep. Mickey Michaux of Durham, a Democratic convention delegate, citing Obama's work to rescue the auto industry and lead military efforts to kill 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden. He said North Carolina voters understand that Obama has been hamstrung by Republican obstructionists in Congress to improve the economy and that the president still "holds out our hope for what people want to see."

Two years ago, Democrats had good reason to have North Carolina on their minds.

After all, North Carolina voters had handed Obama a narrow victory over Republican John McCain in 2008, the first for a Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter in 1976. Obama's win was partly due to a strong showing in urban centers such as Charlotte.

But now, as nearly 6,000 Democratic delegates and tens of thousands of others head to North Carolina's largest city, they may appreciate why one political analyst called North Carolina "an ambivalent state."

And some of the national party's main constituencies have not been shy about their displeasure with the more conservative politics of the host state.

Last May's passage of the gay marriage ban, which was backed by evangelist and North Carolina icon Billy Graham among others, provided a dose of reality to liberal activists, revealing a gap between Obama and more socially conservative North Carolina voters. The day after the referendum, the president voiced his support for gay marriage.

The selection of Charlotte remains a sore point with unions, which gave $8.3 million toward the 2008 convention in Denver that nominated Obama. This time, many unions are refusing to financially support the convention because of North Carolina's ban on collective bargaining for teachers and other public workers, which contributes to the state's lowest-in-the-nation rate for organized workers.

The state's political picture also doesn't reflect the North Carolina of 2008, when Democrats retained their near-lock on legislative and executive branches, thanks in part to Obama's coattails.

Two years later, economic concerns helped Republicans win control of the state Legislature for the first time in 140 years.

Things didn't get any better for state Democrats this year. Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue decided against an uphill re-election fight, leaving the party scrambling to find a candidate. Then the executive director of the state party quit amid sexual harassment allegations, and the national party was unable to nudge aside state party Chairman David Parker, who had approved a settlement with the alleged victim, a party employee who alleged he was fired for speaking up.

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