Struggling Charlotte awkward setting for Obama, Democrats
CHARLOTTE, North Carolina
CHARLOTTE, North Carolina (Reuters) - Thousands of Democrats will pack a football stadium in North Carolina to cheer on President Barack Obama when he makes a case for keeping his own job this week.
But voters in the Republican-leaning Southern state Obama captured in 2008 may not be eager to give him a second chance.
It's what campaign strategists might call an "optics" problem: A president asking for another term before an adoring crowd in a state where the unemployment rate hovers around 10 percent four years after the U.S. financial crisis battered its big banks and manufacturers.
North Carolinians like Carol Bayne, unable to find work for 18 months and worried about making rent payments, suspect stories like hers will be lost in the pomp and circumstance.
"Tell the politicians to walk around the neighborhoods and see what's really going on," said Bayne, 55, as she waited for an appointment at one of the city's unemployment offices.
The dire jobs picture in North Carolina is a snapshot of the national challenge facing the Obama camp: win back the White House when the president has not been able to put a big dent in the jobless rate. It's no coincidence Republican candidate Mitt Romney has seized on the issue, putting states like North Carolina in play for November after Obama won it by 14,000 votes four years ago.
"North Carolina was tight in 2008. It'll be tight this year. I don't think it will be an easy state to win," Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx said at the opening news conference Monday when asked about the state of the race in his state.
STRUGGLING TO REBOUND
Charlotte is one of many U.S. cities still working to regain its footing, even as it hosts one of the 2012 presidential campaign's most high-profile event. For decades, the city stood out as a New South juggernaut that prospered even when other parts of the country suffered in recessions. But it took a one-two punch in the financial crisis.
Bank of America Corp required multiple bailouts as it struggled with its Merrill Lynch and Countrywide Financial acquisitions, and the city's other big bank, Wachovia Corp, nearly collapsed and was acquired by San Francisco-based Wells Fargo & Co.
"The recession hit Charlotte harder than the rest of the country," said Wells Fargo economist Mark Vitner, who is based in the city. "We had a big concentration in many of the key areas that were negatively impacted, particularly financial services and residential construction."
The financial sector has stabilized and companies such as banana marketer Chiquita Brands International Inc are adding jobs in Charlotte, Vitner said. But some counties on the outskirts of the city are continuing to struggle as new construction remains dormant, he said.
Convention planners tempered expectations before the event that choosing Charlotte as the Democratic National Convention's host city would give Obama a guaranteed bump in North Carolina.
"Having a convention in a particular state in and of itself does not automatically give you a boost. It's how you use that convention," said Steve Kerrigan, the convention CEO. "You can't just drop into a swing state and have a convention and expect that you're going to win that state."
"We have put a premium at the president's instruction from the very beginning on engaging the community here in North Carolina and the region in a way that's never been done before at a Democratic or Republican national convention. That's how you help impact an election," he said.
Since the choice was made public in February 2011, a parade of Obama administration officials have visited the city to tout the area's effort to attract innovative green energy jobs. In January, for example, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner toured a Siemens AG turbine plant that plans to create 1,000 jobs in the next three years.
The choice over other locations for party conventions itself may provide a short-term boost to employment, as the city spruces up roads, staffs hotels and beefs up security, Vitner said. Charlotte Chamber of Commerce officials plan to use the convention as a way to showcase the city and recruit new companies, officials said.
Duke Energy Corp CEO Jim Rogers, who co-chaired the effort to bring the convention to Charlotte, said the city's growth as an energy hub has helped it regain its economic "mojo." The region's energy sector has more than 240 companies supporting more than 24,000 jobs, he said.
An Obama campaign spokesman said there is still work to do but that the administration has made strides in creating jobs across the country. Since early 2010, Charlotte has added 33,000 jobs, while North Carolina has gained 106,000, spokesman Adam Fetcher said.
"There is no better place to talk about economic growth and innovation than Charlotte, which has become an economic engine for its region," Fetcher said.
CHALLENGES BEYOND JOBS
High unemployment in North Carolina isn't the only challenge the president and Democrats face in the "Tar Heel state." Republicans took control of both of North Carolina's legislative chambers in 2010 for the first time in more than a century.
Democratic Governor Bev Perdue is not seeking a second term, and former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, a Republican, has been leading in the polls over his Democratic challenger.
In May, a day before Obama announced his support for gay marriage, North Carolina voters approved adding a ban on same-sex marriage and civil unions to the state constitution by a 3-to-2 margin.
Whether those factors indicate voters here are again leaning Republican remains to be seen, political scientists say, with recent polls showing Obama and Romney in a dead heat or giving one candidate a slight edge over the other.
A new poll from Public Policy Polling this week showed both candidates tied at 48 percent in the battleground state, while the latest Elon University Poll showed Romney in the lead with support from 47 percent of likely voters compared to 43 percent favoring Obama.
"It may be if (North Carolina is) leaning toward anyone right now, it's leaning toward Romney," said Martin Kifer, an assistant professor of political science at High Point University.
"What people coming to North Carolina are going to see is a hard-fought campaign from here on out," he said.
(Writing by Edward Tobin; Editing by Doina Chiacu)
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