North Carolina's New Blues

CHARLOTTE The Queen City Motel sits barely noticed on this city's West Side, just seven minutes from the wobbly banks and new construction projects commanding the downtown skyline. At the Queen City, you find people who are living by day and …

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The Queen City Motel sits barely noticed on this city's West Side, just seven minutes from the wobbly banks and new construction projects commanding the downtown skyline. At the Queen City, you find people who are living by day and by week, watching economic calamity from the outer edge of misery. Some have no cars, no cellphones, no steady work, no health plan and not enough food to fill a small fridge in a $160-a-week room. But in this political season of surprise and possibility, the presidential campaign has found an audience here even among the disheartened.

Warren Kent Vaughn and Brenda Williams were living in an empty 18-wheeler semitrailer not long ago, in love but homeless, their drug histories a drag on their dreams. Then they found salvation in Room 77 of the Queen City, Vaughn working as a live-in handyman, Williams as a maid. They worked seven days a week for chump change, plus room and board.

"It's been a struggle, but I ain't gave up, bro," said Vaughn, who was honorably discharged from the Army, got sucked into the dope racket, killed a man in a street scrap, served 14 years in prison, and on this recent day was tugging on his scraggly beard, work gloves in his back pocket. He was about to measure a window that needed repair, and then put in a smoke alarm, and then whatever. The Queen City is a low-slung, pale brick structure of 47 rooms and little charm. Renovations are underway, management says. The parking lot is nearly empty, and some residents keep their doors open so they won't miss the conversations that may come their way.

The gale forces of the economy are blowing people in different directions, driving them to their presidential choices with an intensity that this state has not seen in some time. Many North Carolinians are either running toward a candidate or running away from one, the candidates now surrogates for folks' fears and aspirations. Even with his consuming worries, Vaughn found himself drawn to Barack Obama's quest as a symbol of the change Vaughn envisioned for his own life.

He even volunteered to register the ex-hustlers on the streets he once ran. And when they shooed him away, he kept insisting. "There are no limitations," he'd tell them. "Stop saying, 'I can't.' Just try, instead of saying, 'I can't.' " After all, Vaughn had found a job and shelter that wasn't under a bridge. His prospects were on the upswing -- just like Obama's in North Carolina, he figured. Now, the one thing missing, what Vaughn craved most, was a change in how others saw him.

"I want people to stop looking down at me," he said, "and look up."

North Carolina is in the midst of a transformation its people are grappling to comprehend. The state long has been a fat red dot on the electoral map, voting Republican in every presidential election since 1976. Some believe it may be turning blue before their eyes; polls over the past month consistently have shown Obama and John McCain in a dead heat. Since January, approximately 550,000 voters have been added to the rolls, a third of them African American, and Democrats have won the registration battle by more than a 5 to 1 margin over Republicans. Pockets of political enthusiasm keep surfacing in the most unlikely places -- even at a motel for itinerants on Wilkinson Boulevard.

"If this were 2012, I'd be willing to say this is no longer a red state," said Ferrel Guillory, a longtime observer of the state's politics and director of the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina. "I don't know if North Carolina is as far along as Virginia is, but the Obama campaign may be accelerating that. We'll see."

Early voting began last Thursday in the state, and as of Tuesday, 543,004 had already voted -- 306,493 Democrats and 147,276 Republicans.

The Obama campaign, with the greatest resources, has opened 45 offices in the state, compared with McCain's 35. This past weekend, Obama made his sixth appearance in North Carolina since winning the nomination in late August, compared with three visits for McCain since May 6. Still, the state's political structure is notably bifurcated: conservative and progressive simultaneously, power concentrated in both parties. Democrats have controlled the governor's mansion for four consecutive terms, so now it is the GOP gubernatorial candidate, Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, who is running on the change theme. Republicans occupy both U.S. Senate seats, but Elizabeth Dole is in danger of losing hers in November. Her enemy: change.