RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — After scores of television ads, a Charlotte convention for the Democrats and a refurbished Republican ground game, the outcome of the presidential race in North Carolina next week isn't much clearer than it was before Election Day 2008.
As the campaigns of President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney head into the final days, both sides enthusiastically suggest they're days away from winning the state's 15 electoral votes. Thousands of volunteers were expected this weekend to call and knock on doors, recruit more volunteers and bring people to vote before early voting ends Saturday afternoon.,
While both sides find reason for optimism from the early-vote statistics and polling, they'd be hard pressed to predict anything beyond a slim victory. An Elon University poll released earlier this week show Obama and Romney tied among likely voters.
"It's very competitive, it's very close," said Jonathan Kappler, research director at the nonpartisan North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation, which tracks state politics for business interests. "It will ultimately be decided by a narrow margin."
Obama won North Carolina by 14,000 votes in 2008 over John McCain from more than 4.3 million votes cast. Obama's victory, the first for a Democratic nominee since 1976, was attributed in part to turnout among energized black voters and young people.
Obama's organizing efforts didn't leave the state after 2008. Republicans acknowledged a poor get-out-the-vote effort last time around, and vowed to do better this year. A stubbornly high state unemployment rate and a Republican surge in the 2010 state elections also boosted Republicans' expectations to return the state to their presidential column this year.
Meanwhile, the Democrats energized their base in North Carolina by holding their party's convention in Charlotte in September and signaled that Obama sought to make the state a permanent part of the party's electoral map.
The result is two robust get-out-the-vote volunteer operations. The Obama-led Democratic campaign in North Carolina boasts of 54 offices and between 15,000 and 20,000 volunteers, while the GOP says they've got 24 "victory" offices backing Romney and the Republican ticket and more than 10,000 volunteers.
Obama national campaign manager Jim Messina told North Carolina volunteers Thursday night the president's early-voting success again among black and youth voters is fueling optimism. Messina said Romney would have to receive between 54 percent and 60 percent of the votes cast on Election Day to catch Obama's early-vote advantage, citing public polling.
Messina cautioned that "the race remains very, very close ... We'll take a tied race. We've always said we'll go into Election Day tied and win it on the ground."
Republican officials in the state say they're confident they'll win and say early voting totals have wiped away the 14,000-vote margin from 2008. The share of GOP voters from all types of early voting as of Friday is 2 percentage points higher compared to 2008 and the Democrats' share is 3 percentage points lower, according to State Board of Elections data.
"I see this race that we are absolutely ahead and that we have the momentum on our side and the intensity," Romney's state campaign manager, Michael Joffrion, said Friday.
Neither Obama nor Romney has visited North Carolina in weeks, leading some to suggest North Carolina isn't a top-tier battleground state. Obama last visited North Carolina during the convention and Romney held an Asheville rally Oct. 11.
However, they've had dozens of surrogates making the candidates' arguments. Republicans have had McCain and House Speaker John Boehner. President Bill Clinton was scheduled to come to North Carolina on Sunday, followed the next day by first lady Michelle Obama in Charlotte.
Longtime North Carolina Democratic consultant Gary Pearce said the first lady's appearance is a good sign Obama believes North Carolina is winnable. He said Romney has more riding on North Carolina because it becomes very difficult for him to reach the 270 electoral votes need to win the presidency without it.
Kappler said he's counted 112 separate presidential campaign ads that aired in North Carolina since the May primary: 38 from the Obama campaign, 37 from Romney, 35 from Republican-leading outside groups and two from Democratic-leaning groups. The commercials and other campaign activity show that North Carolina is a permanent battleground state and no longer an afterthought in the presidential sweepstakes, he said.
"We are entering a new phase in North Carolina politics when we are part of the national conversation," said Kappler, who on Friday gave an ever-so slight advantage to Romney. "We might not be the center of the conversation, but we are part of it."