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Clinton, Trump Vie For Voters In Divided North Carolina

Composite photo of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
U.S. Embassy and Gage Skidmore

With the Republican National Convention in Cleveland now over, the national political spotlight turns to the Democrats, who will nominate their candidate in Philadelphia next week. After that, it's onto the final three-month stretch of this ultra-marathon race. North Carolina is again a swing state and expected to be a regular part of the political terrain through November.
In 2008, only Missouri had a presidential contest that was closer than North Carolina's. Four years ago, just Florida was decided by fewer voters.

"I think it's quite possible that we end up being the closest state this year," said Tom Jensen, Director of Public Policy Polling, a national firm based in Raleigh.

Clinton, Trump tied in North Carolina

For three decades, North Carolina was a Republican stronghold in the presidential race. But as the population has shifted, so has the historical trend. The most recent data from Public Policy Polling shows Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton tied in North Carolina. Other recent polls show the state among four currently in a toss-up.

"I think what 100 percent is going to end up deciding the race in North Carolina is what ends up happening in the suburbs of Wake County and Mecklenburg County," Jensen added.

Meet the swing voters - many of whom are transplants, from blue states like California, New York and Connecticut. They're largely independents and mothers. Pollsters say they altered the Presidential election here in 2008 and 2012. Carter Wrenn, a long-time GOP strategist, calls this an interesting group.

"They don't really like either party. They don't really like politicians, Wrenn said. "They're fiscally conservative on values, they're religious. But on the other hand, government programs like education, social security, Medicare - they're very supportive of. So it's sort of a group of people that don't really fit into any political boxes."

Wrenn first worked on a campaign in 1972, helping Jesse Helms get elected to the U.S. Senate. He's not working for Donald Trump. Asked what he would advise the Republican nominee to do in order to win that slice of suburban voters, and North Carolina, Wrenn said attacks ads, and offered another tactic:

"[Something] positive introduced about Trump that gives the undecided voter some comfort with him," he said. "They're never going to embrace Trump but they need to be a little more comfortable with him than they are right now."

Wrenn said politics is all about messaging and if Trump's camp chooses to sell a layer of comfort, it must be done genuinely.

Voting on character over issues

So-called Tyrant Trump and Crooked Clinton amount to the most disliked presidential finalists on record, and experts say this is more a character race than an issues election.

Gary Pearce is another long-time political operative. He worked for Democratic Governor Jim Hunt during his four terms in office. Pearce is not working for Clinton, but offered his approach at how he would help her cause.

"The easiest way to win an election is to just destroy your opponent," he said. "And there has never been an opponent who invited it as much as Trump does and makes himself vulnerable to it in the way that he does. So that's what I would be telling her."

Clinton reaches for North Carolina supporters with TV ads

Clinton's campaign debuted TV ads here earlier this month. One features some of Trump's most bombastic comments, as children appear to be watching a TV screen.

Trump has not yet run any television ads in the state. Pearce called Clinton's 30-second spot incredibly effective.

"That goes right at that suburban, independent woman," he said. "It goes right to this fear that there's something about Donald Trump - a cruelty, or a bullying, or a meanness to him - that I don't really don't want to see in the White House."

While another scandal, an October surprise, or as Wrenn put it "the hand of god," could still play into this race, there are still more than 100 days until the second Tuesday in November.

Tom Jensen, the pollster, said even though some voters have grown tired of the rhetoric, it's an exciting time to be a North Carolinian for political junkies.

"We've never been this important," he said. "If you're somebody who gets sick of the ads, sick of having the candidates here all the time, all I can really say is buckle-up, it's going to be a long three and a half months."

Starting with events on Monday: Donald Trump is scheduled to visit Winston-Salem and Hillary Clinton will be in Charlotte.

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