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The battle for the Old Confederacy

North Carolina has been a Republican stronghold for decades. So can Barack Obama really overcome the history of racial prejudice in the southern states? Leonard Doyle reports from Raleigh

In the long and bruising campaign for the White House, both presidential candidates have been tip-toeing around the issue of race, fearful that if mishandled it could somehow deliver a fatal electric shock.

The polls suggest that America will elect Barack Obama its first black president in two weeks. But the tidal wave of enthusiasm for him points to him not just winning the White House but capturing two important states of the Old Confederacy, North Carolina and Virginia.

Both have reliably gone Republican during every presidential election for 40 years, and only once since 1948 has Virginia voted to put a Democrat in the White House. On a US electoral map, these are the highest peaks of prejudice the Democrat is poised to overcome. North Carolina, especially, is a place where some of the nastiest race-based campaigns have been fought in modern times. The ground is now shaking under the country club Republicans as the polls give Senator Obama a margin of some 10 percentage points in Virginia and put North Carolina on a knife edge.

For more than 20 years, Carter Wrenn was the most feared political operative in the state. He devised and implemented campaigns for the late Senator Jesse Helms, tapping into the racial fears and prejudices of voters. His TV spots and direct mailings got the demagogue elected to the US Senate time after time.

He says old-fashioned race-baiting would not work this time. It has to be more subtle. "We used race and we probably shouldn't have, no, we shouldn't have," Mr Wrenn said in the soft drawl of a southern gentleman. A history buff with a passion for Winston Churchill, he had a change of heart when he came to appreciate the hurt and pain his race-baiting campaigning had caused to one of his very few African-American friends, an office maintenance man.

"Obama has a chance here," he says between pulls on an early morning cigar, "but if he was Tiger Woods I would be saying that he needs to finish the back nine with six birdies if he is going to take the states."

If the polls are correct and the huge numbers of newly registered voters actually turn out to vote, Mr Wrenn's life's work of building an impenetrable bastion for Republicans in North Carolina could soon be swept away. A defeat here, however narrow for Senator McCain, will be a painful setback for the Republicans. If this state and Virginia go Democratic, Senator Obama has won the White House. But perhaps more important will be the shattering of the Republicans' infamous "southern strategy".

That is the policy perfected by Richard Nixon after the Civil Rights act of 1964 to exploit the racial divisions of the old South as a way of reliably sending Republicans to the White House. "Bill Clinton finally showed you can win the presidency without winning the South," said Ferrel Guillory, professor of politics at the University of North Carolina. "But if Barack Obama becomes the first black president to win the presidency with support from the South, it opens a new era in American politics."

Tensions over race and even fear of violence erupting on the campaign trail have been close to the surface in recent weeks. They prompted John Lewis, the famous black Georgia Democrat and prominent civil rights leader to accuse the McCain campaign of "sowing the seeds of hatred and division" as he recalled the atmosphere fostered by the segregationist governor of Alabama, George Wallace, in the 1960s.

Sarah Palin's accusations that Senator Obama was "palling around with terrorists" brought shouts of "Terrorist" and "Kill him" from her audience. A Republican group distributed offensive anti-Obama literature with stereotypical black America images of a watermelon, barbecue ribs and a bucket of fried chicken.

Even "Joe the Plumber", who got his 15 minutes of fame after being mentioned during the last presidential debate, said all he got from Mr Obama when he asked about the tax he may have to pay was "a tap dance. Almost as good as Sammy Davis Jr".

This weekend, the jagged front line of the election dipped south of the Mason-Dixon line, as both candidates campaigned in Virginia and North Carolina, states where George Bush barely appeared in 2000 and 2004. Senator McCain was there to energise conservatives and independents. But Mr Obama was also in North Carolina, holding enormous rallies and spending vast sums to smother his opponent with a blanket of television spots and paid-for "infomercials".

The last time North Carolina went Democratic was in 1976 when Jimmy Carter narrowly scraped by. And what may soon happen in North Carolina is only now sinking in for Republicans. With an electorate 85 per cent white, as recently as 1990 the state rewarded Jesse Helms with a Senate seat after he used a now-infamous race-baiting television advertisement. Aired only three times, the "white hands" ad showed an unemployed white man ripping up a rejection notice from a company that gave a job to a "less-qualified minority".

Nothing so crude has been employed this time. Rather a huge influx of white and black voters to urban areas of North Carolina has changed the demographics of what was once a predominantly rural white state. Behind the high pillars of the North Carolina Country Club in Raleigh there is agitation at the prospect of a black president. That Mr Obama was born to a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas makes it all the more intolerable for some. Thirty years ago, it would have been illegal for the couple to marry and live in Virginia under the state's "misogyny" laws which banned mixed marriages.

Gary Pearce is a Democratic political consultant and a member of the elegant country club. He described how the air turns blue in the exercise room, as members young and old discuss the unwelcome prospect of an Obama victory. "They refer to black people as 'them'," he said, "and cannot conceive of a black president. One man, a stockbroker said, 'I could never vote for that nigger'. It's really shocking to hear such open prejudice among some of the most powerful people in the state. There are two important things some Southerners need to know about the Civil War:it's over, and we lost."

Nobody believes the racism instilled into generations of rural whites has gone away. "It's still there," said Charlene Williams a black businesswoman who moved from Chicago. "But instead of being a true-blooded Republican state, it has become a melting pot. But just because Jesse Helms has died does not mean those attitudes have gone."

At Ed's Country Market, Pastor Donald McCoy finds himself sitting in front a memorial to the Civil War, complete with guns, swords and Confederate flags. He dismisses it with a wave of his hands and with his omelette growing cold on the plate, he describes his excitement at the prospect of an Obama presidency.

"I already call him President," he said, "and he is going to transform the way this country sees itself. I'm 64 now and I was around in the civil Rights period with Martin Luther King and I can tell you that he made a prophesy that we would get to the promised land and Barack Obama is that prophesy coming to pass."

As for the racism of his fellow North Carolinians, Rev McCoy is optimistic. "Times have changed," he said, "and in this failing economy it doesn't make any difference whether you are white, black or Hispanic but we cannot achieve anything by being divided." New voters, have come to the state attracted, by the "research Triangle" around Duke University. They are urban rather than rural and therefore perfect fodder for the Obama campaign. Even those Republicans who moved to the state are less doctrinaire than their old-style southern cousins.

The McCain campaign has not openly played the race card and despite appeals from supporters to go harder. Senator McCain will not even mention the case of Jeremiah Wright, Mr Obama's controversial former preacher. Instead he is focusing on Bill Ayers, the radical from the 1960s. A voice-over "robocall" tells voters who answer their phones that Obama "has worked closely with domestic terrorist Bill Ayers", whose organisation "killed Americans".

Race-based attacks are off limits but that does not prevent race being used, says Mr Wrenn. "There are two race cards," he says, "One is a no-holds-barred, two-fisted, blunt-edged appeal to race that's hardly ever seen anymore. These days only a desperate politician, or one bent on suicide, plays that race card. The other race card is more subtle. It can be as simple as a candidate having a campaign slogan like, 'He's one of us'. A lot of times that's not racist at all. But other times, subtly, it is.

"Because, just naturally, when folks see even a friend who has a strange accent or a different skin colour or round eyes, they think, 'He's not like me'. Chalk it up to original sin, but that's the way it is."

That is why Mr Wrenn thinks the Republicans will still hold North Carolina. But Virginia he sees as a lost cause, which, if Obama wins, he wins the White House.

Divided state: North Carolina

*North Carolina has a population of nearly nine million, with black people making up 22 per cent.

*A Republican stronghold, it was last won by a Democratic presidential candidate, Jimmy Carter, in 1976.

*Founded by Virginians in 1653, it was among the 13 colonies that fought British rule and signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

*It was named after the Latin name for King Charles I, Carolus.