Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Taking Stock

From the birthplace of stock car racing - the land of NASCAR, Billy Graham and Carolina pulled pork - we offer these late-night musings on the presidential race...after spending a whirlwind 60 hours on the North Carolina campaign trail:

Barack Obama won handily here. It looks like the final margin will be about 14 points, roughly half of what his lead once was, but significantly more than the late polls suggested he would get. The turnout was astronomical, more than 50% higher than the previous record. Black voters, who traditionally don't go to the polls very much here, turned out in staggering numbers, and more than 90% of them voted for Obama. He claimed his victory with a rousing speech that was focused more on the fall campaign against John McCain than on the dwindling battle with Hillary Clinton.

Clinton held on to a razor-thin lead in Indiana - as of this writing, just 23,000 votes ahead out of more than a million cast - but CBS News, alone among the major news organizations, called the race for her early, and she accepted the win with a victory speech of her own (five hours later, the other networks and AP finally ratified her win, and that breeze you just felt was someone in the CBS exit poll analysis department exhaling in relief).

Clinton's speech seemed a tad disingenuous to me - "it's full speed ahead to the White House"? - delivered with husband Bill and daughter Chelsea smiling wanly behind her - but what else is a candidate in her position to do? With only four weeks and six contests to go, she might as well stay in to the end at this point, and hope another Obama stumble or some change of heart among the remaining superdelegates somehow vaults her to the nomination.

Realistically, Clinton didn't get what she needed tonight (last night, at this point). She had hoped for a more decisive win in Indiana, and a close finish here in North Carolina. The Clintons spent a lot of time and energy in the Tar Heel State, sensing a chance to narrow the gap with Obama, and forcing him to campaign more here than he'd planned to. But instead of building on her Pennsylvania momentum, she will wake up in the morning further behind in the delegate count than she was before these two primaries, with precious few delegates still in play. It's as if Obama were ahead by a touchdown with seven minutes to play...and he just kicked a field goal, and now the clock has wound down to the two-minute warning. It will take a Hail Mary and then some for Hillary to win now.

SEEN AND HEARD ON THE CAROLINA TRAIL:

Carolinians are sweet, generous, friendly people - churchgoing folk who are unfailingly polite and pleasant. When I asked a voter if one calls a person from Charlotte a "Charlatan" - he took no offense, laughingly telling me, uh, no, we are "Charlotteans" (pronounced Shar-luh-TEE-ans). I passed a Baptist Church whose marquee read "Yes! A Liberal Church!" The studio I borrowed at our local CBS Radio affiliate was plastered with Bible verses and inspirational sayings. Let's just say that "Our Daily Bread" and "Bible Study Primer" are not on the shelf in our San Francisco newsroom...

Race was definitely a factor here, and from what I can gather, in Indiana, too. Sixty percent of the white folk voted for Clinton. Very few would admit to me that race influenced their decision, but when pressed, it was clear that it did. One 76-year-old independent voter insisted she's not racist - but then said she voted for Hillary Clinton because "we have to keep the White House white." What does that mean? "Well, let's keep America, America. If Obama is the president, it wouldn't be the White House anymore, would it? That's not racist, is it?" When gently told that some people would think it is, she said "well, I want change - but not that drastically. I just want things to be the way they've always been. Is that racist? It's the White House, not the Black House." She said she would be voting for John McCain in November, no matter who the Democrats nominate. I think voters like this are in the minority, but they may well pose a problem for Barack Obama, when he tries to take that checkered flag in the fall - which, last time I looked, was black and white.