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CHARLOTTE, North Carolina-In the 1976 presidential contest, it was Jimmy Carter over Gerald Ford, in the country and in North Carolina. That was the last time a Democratic presidential nominee won the state.

George W. Bush beat John Kerry with 56 percent of the vote in 2004 in the Tarheel State. Not even the presence of former North Carolina Senator John Edwards in the vice-presidential slot could help Kerry escape the fate that has taken a hold of the many Democratic candidates who preceded him.

This year could be different. The latest Time/CNN poll has Barack Obama leading John McCain 50 percent to 43 percent in a statistical dead heat. The polls confirm what both campaigns have been saying: North Carolina is a toss-up state and its 15 electoral votes are up for grabs.

The proof is seen in multiple appearances by the candidates, their vice-presidential running mates Sarah Palin and Joe Biden, families and surrogates. Obama definitely leads in the celebrity race with boldface names like James Taylor and Usher among those who have stumped for him here. The reliably red South Carolina can only look on with envy at the attention being paid to its now in-play neighbor to the north.

What’s so different in 2008 about this particular southern state-where not too long ago Jesse Helms twice beat Charlotte’s only Black mayor, Harvey Gantt, in racially charged, hard-fought U.S. Senate contests?

North Carolina is not easy to figure out. Its mix of urban, suburban and rural areas includes the university-saturated Research Triangle (with one of the highest number of Ph.D.’s per capita) and small towns with textile plant closings adding to rising unemployment numbers. The demographics of the state have changed. While North Carolina is 21.7 percent Black, there is an influx of newcomers from various countries and a growing Hispanic population of about 595,000, the twelfth largest in the nation, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

In every population, concern over the economy has moved ahead of the socially conservative and national security issues that once resonated. Even the booming “Queen City” of Charlotte, home to the NBA Bobcats, the NFL Panthers and the under-construction NASCAR Hall of Fame, learned some humility when its banking industry recently took a huge hit. San Francisco-based Wells Fargo recently agreed to bail out the flailing Charlotte-based Wachovia. Wells Fargo officials have said they intend to make Charlotte the eastern headquarters of the company, while Wachovia employees worry about the future of their jobs in a merged corporate environment.

Early voting, which started October 16 and ends November 1, has drawn long lines in every neighborhood, with Democrats turning out more heavily than ever. Drive through the most affluent neighborhoods in southeast Charlotte and you’ll see a patchwork of election signs-McCain-Palin on the expansive lawn of one house; Obama-Biden on the next.

The intense competition has extended down ticket. In her bid for re-election, GOP Senator Elizabeth Dole surprisingly trails Democratic candidate Kay Hagan in the polls.

Television and radio stations have been big winners. North Carolina has been blanketed with national and local political advertisements and pre-recorded phone calls of praise and attack.

The spotlight has not always been kind. Dole’s ads linking Hagan to “Godless Americans” might have hurt more than helped her. Similarly, Representative Robin Hayes, running in the state’s 8th Congressional District, is paying for his caught-on-tape October 18 introductory remarks for McCain, saying, “Liberals hating real Americans that work and accomplish and achieve and believe in God.” Hayes now trails Democrat Larry Kissell.

It was in North Carolina that Palin made the statement that she loved to visit the “pro-America” areas of the country.

Still, if anyone believes in change in North Carolina and the country, it’s Gantt, who won 47 percent of the vote while losing his 1990 Senate race to Helms. Some attribute the narrow loss to Helms’s “White Hands” ad that connected Gantt to quotas and stirred racial resentment.

As November 4 grows closer, Gantt, 65, is one of many African-Americans who believed the “not in my lifetime” idea of seeing a Black president. But he’s had time to sit back, observe, and he does believe Obama will win.

“He’s an extension of what a lot of us tried,” Gantt said.

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning columnist and editor who has written for The Charlotte Observer, the Baltimore Sun and The New York Times. She was a 2006 Nieman Fellow.