Democrats hear a Dixie melody: Clinton is the party's first candidate since Carter to sway vital voters in the South. John Lichfield reports from Charlotte, North Carolina

IN HER 20 years in the parched grass roots of Democratic politics in the South, Pat Patton has seen her party's presidential candidates come and go - mainly go.

'Now, Mr McGovern, he was a very sweet man. He sent me Christmas cards for 10 years,' she reminisces over Diet Coke and tortilla chips in a bright, dingy store-front in suburban Charlotte (headquarters of the Mecklenburg County Democratic Party).

As chairwoman of the party in a pivotal county in a pivotal state, Mrs Patton, 70, is a compelling, if suspect, witness on the direction of this year's pundit-defying presidential campaign. 'We're going to win it for Mr Clinton. No question about it,' she said.

'The whole mood of Charlotte and North Carolina has changed out of recognition from four years ago. Since the Democratic Convention in July, we've seen 670 folks walk through that door and say, 'We mean to work for you.' In the campaign in 1988, with little Mr Dukakis running, we never raised more than 100 volunteers.'

If Bill Clinton can win or narrowly lose Mecklenburg County, a Republican stronghold, he will win North Carolina. If he can win North Carolina, America's 10th largest state, on 3 November, he will win a scattering of other Southern states, something only Jimmy Carter has achieved for the Democrats in the past 24 years. If he can break the post-Vietnam, post-civil rights, Republican neck-lock on the once solidly Democratic South, he will be the next president. But can he win here? National polls are tightening somewhat, but regional and internal party polls suggest that substantial white and solid black support puts Clinton 10 points ahead across the South, and six to eight points ahead in North Carolina, a remarkable feat.

Ted Arrington is politics professor at the University of North Carolina, and a Republican. 'If Bush can get the interest of white Southern voters off their one issue, the economy, and on to Clinton's personal morals, or the commander-in-chief question, or crime or race, Clinton is going to take a beating here. But the Republicans are running out of missiles. They tried family values. They tried Hillary Clinton. They tried taxes. They tried the draft issue. People keep asking me, 'Won't these things work?' I say, 'Sure, a little. They will all work a little.'

'The race will tighten. Races always do. But will it work enough to win North Carolina or re-elect President Bush? Personally, at this stage, I doubt it.'

Thirty miles to the west, in ultra-conservative Gaston County, Sandra Page is puzzling over the strange case of the telephones that do not ring. Mrs Page, county supervisor of elections, recalls the vicious Senate race in North Carolina two years ago between Senator Jesse Helms, bull elephant of unreconstructed conservatism, and Harvey Gantt, the black former mayor of Charlotte. At the equivalent stage in that race, she says, she had no time to pause for breath. Her desk was swimming in requests for voting registrations and postal ballots. 'This time, honey' - she makes a wide-eyed face and waves her hands - 'nothing. No-thing. I keep wondering what I'm going to do with my time.'

US elections (elections anywhere) are won by mobilising your base vote and snaring the swing vote. Gaston County - a gritty place of old textile mills and new service industries lining the New York-to-Atlanta freeway - is Republican heartland in North Carolina. Traditionally, it returns big Republican majorities of two-to-one, trumping the Democratic majorities generated by the dangerously modern-thinking, hi-tech suburbs of Raleigh-Durham to the north and the black, and residual white, tribal Democrats in the coastal plains to the east.

Mrs Page sums up the county's electoral inactivity (six weeks from polling day, two weeks from close of registrations): 'Bad news for Bush and the Republicans.'

Warren Herman, 70, a retired Republican construction worker in Gaston County, wears a white baseball cap marked 'Rainbow Paints'. He concedes that North Carolina will be 'damn close' this time. He blames the media for making the economy seem worse than it is, and for picking on Mr Bush. 'The media focus on every tiny error of the President's, but ignore Clinton's draft-dodging and womanising. If they would only focus on those issues, Clinton would disappear just like that.' He snaps his fingers.

Mr Herman thinks that Mr Bush will carry North Carolina narrowly, thanks to the military vote in such bases as Fort Bragg and Pope Airforce Base (jointly, one of the world's largest military complexes). But he concedes: 'I don't think Bush is going to carry the majorities in this county which Republicans have in the past.'

In that case, George Bush is in trouble. Consider the strange arithmetic of elections in the South. There is a 20 per cent black electorate in North Carolina, all of which, bar a few votes, will go to Mr Clinton. The Democratic candidate needs only 37.5 per cent of the white vote to win the state (less in other Southern states, a little more in others). With the national Democratic Party associated in the minds of white Southerners, especially white Southern males, with taxation, gun control and kindness to blacks, a string of Northern liberal presidential candidates - Humphrey, McGovern, Mondale, Dukakis - failed to win even one in three white voters in Dixie over the past 24 years.

Ted Arrington believes all that can change, for several reasons: the poor national economy; the comforting Southern-ness of Mr Clinton and his running mate, Al Gore; and the southward population shifts of the Eighties, which have made the endless leafy suburbs of Raleigh, Durham and Charlotte like endless leafy suburbs throughout the US.

David Hoyle, 53, is running as a Democrat for the State Senate for Gaston and neighbouring counties. In past years, he says, the hopes of many local Democrats have been drowned by the dead weight at the 'top of the ticket'. This year, by comparison, Mr Clinton and Mr Gore are like a life-raft.

'This is a conservative state. There's a lot of folks here who regard the Bible as revealed reality. None of that has changed. Many of those folks will still vote for Bush, if they vote at all. What is different this time is that many of the white, blue-collar, lower-income males, people who haven't been with us in years, are ready to vote for Clinton and Gore. Sure, partly it's the economy. They want a change and don't see Bush delivering it.

'But there's more than that. If we had another Northern Democrat running for president with an unpronounceable name or any name ending in a vowel, or one of those hell-fire liberals like (Senator Tom) Harkin, we'd be as badly off as ever. Southern folks feel comfortable with Clinton. He talks like us. He's for the death penalty; against unreasonable gun control; for reform of welfare.'

Even moderate Republicans, such as Mr Arrington, do not dispute this analysis. 'The South has been a Republican presidential bastion, but it is a hollow bastion. Democrats still carry the biggest part of the local races. What this tells you is that we have no parties any more in the US. People feel no overwhelming allegiance to any party. They vote for specific people on specific issues in specific races.

'If you have a presidential race like this one, where the economy is bad and Southern whites feel no particular comfort or cultural affinity with the Republican candidate - just as they didn't when (Gerald) Ford lost in 1976 - and some degree of comfort with the Democratic candidate, as they did when Carter won in 1976, the Republican bastion can crumble into sand.'

With six weeks to go, many questions remain unresolved. Will Ross Perot re-enter the race and, if so, whom does he hurt? Answer: he will not re-enter except to hurt Mr Bush, whom, clearly, he detests. Republican operatives fear he may yet endorse Mr Clinton, in return for the chairmanship of a blue-riband inquiry into the federal deficit.

Will the character issues, notably the Vietnam draft, begin to hurt Mr Clinton? No sign of mortal wounds in North Carolina, as good a place to search for them as any. Several local Democrats, having lost so often, cannot quite believe Mr Clinton will win here. But even a close defeat in North Carolina may indicate a pattern of Democratic victory nationwide.

Pat Patton, sitting under portraits of FDR and JFK, reads history's patterns another way. 'Enthusiasm for Clinton is greater than for Carter in 1976. It's broader. Why, some rednecks like Clinton. Lord knows what they see in him. Maybe it's his saxophone.'

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor