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For Trump and Biden, attention on North Carolina will linger well past Super Tuesday

By Steve Contorno and Jeff Zeleny, CNN

Raleigh, North Carolina (CNN) — Donald Trump and Republican rival Nikki Haley may have dueling rallies planned for Saturday in North Carolina, but the former president’s appearance will provide an early window into his longer-term strategy beyond the state’s Super Tuesday primary.

Of all the states voting Tuesday, North Carolina stands out as the one most likely to remain a hotbed for political activity long after polls close next week. For Trump, already looking ahead to a potential rematch with President Joe Biden, it is likely to be the first of many visits here as he seeks a third consecutive win in this key battleground.

He will have stiff competition once again. North Carolina, which Trump narrowly won in 2020, is emerging as a critical piece of Biden’s reelection strategy. The president’s advisers view its 16 electoral votes as not only attainable, considering the state’s changing demographics, but also as something of an insurance policy, given challenges in Michigan and other battleground states.

“North Carolina is going to be very competitive for both sides, and no one will be able to take it for granted,” said Paul Shumaker, a veteran operative behind many of the GOP’s statewide victories in recent years. “It’s going to be in a constant state of flux.”

Leading into Super Tuesday, the weekend visits from the former president, Haley and Vice President Kamala Harris underscore the increasing importance of North Carolina on the electoral map.

“The president and I have been very intentional about the work that we are doing to invest in communities in many ways, including through small businesses,” Harris said Friday during a stop in Durham, her second visit to the state this year.

It has been 16 years since Barack Obama delivered a North Carolina surprise in 2008. That lonely victory – the first and only time a Democratic presidential candidate has carried the state in nearly five decades – offers less of a nostalgic enticement for Biden’s campaign than the potential for true opportunity because of fast-growing suburban areas in Wake County around Raleigh, Mecklenburg County outside Charlotte, and a handful of other cities.

Of the 836,000 voters the state has added since 2012, more than a third are in Wake and Mecklenburg counties – and they continue to add new residents every day. Biden took both counties four years ago by about a 2-to-1 margin.

Sarah Reidy-Jones has watched the GOP’s struggle to compete in Charlotte deepen with each successive election. As a onetime Republican operative who until recently led the Mecklenburg County GOP, she once launched a website called “Don’t Seattle My Charlotte” – a rallying cry that spoke to local conservative angst over the political shift that would accompany the state’s tech boom.

She isn’t sure how much longer Republicans can hold the line in North Carolina.

“It’s math,” she said. “You see how many out-of-state licenses are driving around here.”

It’s the kind of swing state that Haley has asserted Republicans risk losing if they nominate Trump again – an argument that has won the former South Carolina governor significant support, albeit, most likely not enough to overcome the former president.

“He can’t win a general election,” Haley said Friday night, drawing loud applause at a rally in Charlotte.

Haley, who earned endorsements Friday from Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, directly confronted Trump and what she described as a dismissive attitude toward her supporters.

“If you don’t think that you need 30 to 40% of us, you are showing exactly why you are going to lose a general election,” she said.

In the waning days of the Republican primary, Haley’s votes could hold important lessons – perhaps less so for her own candidacy than for Trump, Biden or even a third-party candidate. The results from Tuesday’s primary contest will be carefully studied by Trump and Biden campaign advisers, who have their sights set on her supporters as they plan their strategies for the eight-month march to the November election.

Will Trump convince Haley’s supporters to get over their dissatisfaction with him and rally behind his candidacy? Will some of those moderate voters turn to Biden in the fall? North Carolina will be among the key laboratories to provide answers for these questions and more.

A highly educated electorate

North Carolina also has the potential to further expose Trump’s challenge in convincing college-educated voters to support his third White House bid. The percentage of the population with an undergraduate degree or higher is growing faster in North Carolina than almost any other state.

College-educated voters in the Tar Heel State shifted hard toward Biden in 2020, and they have made up a major piece of the coalition of Republican voters resistant to Trump in the GOP presidential primaries held so far this year.

In a nod to their importance in 2024, Harris, during her Friday visit to North Carolina, attended a training session for young campaign volunteers in Durham, inside a region known as Research Triangle for its proximity to tech companies and top colleges such as Duke University and the University of North Carolina.

While many Republicans scoff at the notion that North Carolina, in the end, will be seen as one of the top battlegrounds, Trump’s narrowing margin of victory from 2016 to 2020 offers sufficient rationale for his campaign advisers to take the contest seriously. He won the state by about 74,000 votes out of 5.4 million cast in 2020 – a margin of victory of 1.3 points, which is less than half his spread four years earlier.

“I don’t see us becoming a blue state anytime soon,” said Billy Ward, a vice chairman of the Wake County Republican Party in Raleigh. “But I don’t take any of that for granted. We will have to reach out to every voter and make sure they’re motivated.”

Trump senior adviser Susie Wiles didn’t directly address the likelihood of North Carolina flipping blue when asked at an end-of-year Trump rally, but she told CNN that the campaign is taking all the most-talked about battlegrounds “seriously.”

“I think all the ones we know are competitive are competitive,” Wiles said. “I think we will compete in some more vigorously this time than we did last time.”

Another Trump adviser told CNN the campaign knows the state will be a focal point in the race, and it intends to mount an aggressive ground game there.

Trump has tapped North Carolina GOP chairman Michael Whatley as his hand-picked choice to replace outgoing chair Ronna McDaniel as head of the Republican National Committee. Elevating Whatley has brought some encouragement to local Republicans that the national party will remain clear-eyed about the importance of North Carolina this cycle.

But Whatley also encapsulates the state party’s lurch toward MAGA, which has generated concerns about the GOP’s viability in statewide races going forward. Whatley himself is a purveyor of falsehoods about the 2020 election. Last year, at the GOP’s state convention where Trump spoke, the party censored its own US senator, Thom Tillis, for his support for LGBTQ rights and immigration reform – the kind of aisle-crossing efforts that has helped the Republican win in a diverse purple state.

Down-ballot influences

Meanwhile, the party appears poised to nominate Trump-endorsed Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson in the state’s open governor’s race. Robinson is an outspoken and unapologetic conservative with a long track record of divisive statements, particularly on social issues such as abortion and gay rights.

A Robinson nomination is likely to provide more firepower to Democrats already looking to make abortion access a central issue of the campaign in North Carolina. Republicans, who hold a supermajority in the state legislature, passed a near-total ban on abortion after 12 weeks of a pregnancy last year, overriding a veto by the state’s Democratic governor, Roy Cooper. Robinson has voiced opposition to abortion without exceptions, but his office has said he currently supports legislation that could ban abortion after a “heartbeat” is detected — but with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother.

Anderson Clayton, the state’s Democratic Party chair, is bullish on her party’s prospects and believes the Biden campaign is taking seriously the potential of North Carolina. A 26-year-old former political organizer, she defeated longtime party leaders to win her position last year and is seeking to inject a new sense of energy into state Democrats as the youngest party chair in the country.

“It’s not a question to me about whether or not North Carolina is a purple state, a battleground state or could be a blue state,” Clayton said. “We know that the state is 50/50, and we’ve got to fight for every single vote across all 100 counties.”

She also challenged assumptions that a growing population would ultimately guarantee Democratic victories. Conservative voters also have moved to North Carolina, particularly in the southeastern corner of the state, which has seen dramatic growth.

“Yes, we have had more growth in our urban communities, and it’s going to make North Carolina trend bluer in the future,” Anderson said. “But we’ve also had a great migration from people who are from the northeast and are actual, what they’re calling themselves, political refugees and are coming down to North Carolina.”

The Trump campaign intends to court military families in North Carolina, home to eight bases, by arguing that the Biden administration has overstretched American forces. It also plans to hit the president over his handling of the Russia-Ukraine war.

And then there are the top issues that may sway the state’s fast-growing block of unaffiliated voters. Republicans believe that these North Carolinians are true swing voters and can be swayed by the record influx of migrants at the Southern border and continuing unease with the economy.

“At the end of the day, can these people pay their bills and go to the restaurants in Charlotte, or are they doubling down on peanut butter and jelly?” Reidy-Jones said.

CNN’s Alayna Treene contributed to this report.

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