APEX, N.C. — North Carolina's Democratic presidential primary is tightening, with Sen. Barack Obama's struggles over his controversial former pastor apparently eroding his once formidable lead here.
The Tar Heel state was once seen as Obama's to lose. But three different public opinion polls conducted in recent days suggest that New York Sen. Hillary Clinton has been cutting the gap.
The Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling has found that Obama's one-time lead of 25 points has decreased to 12 points. A SurveyUSA poll found that Obama's 9 point lead is now down to 5 points, while Rasmussen's poll has Obama's lead dropping from 23 to 14 points.
Most of Obama's loss of support has been among white voters. Pollster Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling attributes the drop to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy, as well as campaign visits by both Hillary and Bill Clinton in recent days.
The surveys were taken before North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley endorsed Clinton on Tuesday, and before Obama repudiated Wright the same day in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Kerry Haynie, a political scientist at Duke University, said that Obama's white support began to drop among working class whites in earlier primary states such as Pennsylvania, before the latest flare-up of the Wright controversy.
"I think he has been damaged by all of this," said Haynie. "The (Wright) flareup exacerbated the trend already there. Democratic candidates who reach out to black voters tend to lose support among some white constituencies."
"It's a race-related explanation for that trend," Haynie said. "The more Obama becomes a black candidate or the candidates of blacks, the more support that we see falling off among some segments of the white population."
Congressman G.K Butterfield of Wilson, an Obama leader in North Carolina, said that Obama has been hurt by the Wright controversy. But he also said it was natural that the North Carolina primary would become more closely contested.
"That's typical in this kind of race," Butterfield said. "We didn't accept the double digit lead of a couple of weeks ago. People are beginning to settle down and look at the race and make final choices."
"I think it will be a single digit win," Butterfield said. "I believe Obama will win."
Ace Smith, the state Clinton campaign director, said that Clinton still faces an uphill race in North Carolina.
"The fact of the matter is, as recently as a week ago, he was up 25 points," Smith said. "Everyone would agree that the race is moving - very good from our standpoint."
Even as North Carolina became more competitive, both Obama and Clinton campaigned Wednesday and Thursday in Indiana, which holds its primary next Tuesday, the same day as North Carolina, and which polls suggest is still the much closer of the two states.
At a news conference Tuesday in Winston-Salem, Obama repudiated his former minister. Wright had said in recent days that the 9/11 attacks occurred because the United States itself had engaged in terrorism, that the government had used the AIDS virus to commit genocide against minorities, and spoke favorably of Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam.
Obama called the remarks "divisive and destructive" and said they don't reflect his own views.
Interviews Wednesday with voters attending Bill Clinton rallies in Apex and Sanford suggested that Obama had not put the Wright issue behind him.
Tony Perna said there is no way he would vote for Obama and that if he is the Democratic nominee he would back Republican John McCain.
"He's been going to that church for a long time," said Perna, a 63-year old retired schoolteacher from Holly Springs, as he waited for Bill Clinton to speak.
"Some of what he had to say is some place in this guy's (Obama's) mind," Perna said. "That is why I will never vote for Barack Obama."
"I think it's getting worse and worse for him," said Amy McCaskill, a 38-year old Apex scientist. "I think the rhetoric (from Wright) has gotten worse and more absurd and it makes him (Obama) look worse."
"He has real problems with working class Democrats and whites,"
McCaskill said. "That is the base of the Democratic Party."
Penny Faulkner, a 58-year old Apex nurse, said that Obama's denunciation of Wright, coming this late, will be seen by many as a political move.
"He's been his spiritual adviser for 20 years," said Faulkner, a Clinton backer. "You can't decide that something is wrong or right depending on whether you are running for office."
Not everyone sees it that way.
J. Haydel, a 39-year old Apex quality insurance engineer, thinks the Wright affair is the creation of the news media.
"I don't know that it's had a big impact," said Haydel, an Obama supporter. "I didn't see it as big thing to begin with."
Judy Walters, a 53-year-old teacher from Sanford who's supporting Clinton, said Obama should not be penalized for the remarks of his minister.
"As a Christian you need to be accountable for yourself," Walters said. "People should not hold it against Obama because of what his preacher says."
(Rob Christensen reports for the Raleigh News and Observer.)