Senators Clinton and Obama speak at Jefferson-Jackson

May 3, 2008 6:47:08 AM PDT
Cheers, jeers and a smattering of boos bounced across the fairgrounds arena built for rodeos and minor-league hockey. Officially a political dinner, it sure seemed like a sporting event -- one with Democratic stars big enough to draw comparisons to the epic clashes between Duke and North Carolina.

"North Carolina is going to help elect the next president," Hillary Rodham Clinton called out to a raucous crowd at Friday night's Jefferson-Jackson Democratic Party dinner. About an hour later, her rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Barack Obama, told the thousands in attendance: "It starts right here, on Tuesday, right here in North Carolina!"

That wasn't expected to be the case a few months ago, when the Democratic Party's annual fundraising dinner was still scheduled for a hotel ballroom. The featured speakers were set to be candidates such as Jim Neal, a financial planner from Chapel Hill running for U.S. Senate.

But this year, with Clinton and Obama still locked in their race for the party's presidential nomination, and with Tuesday's primary having the potential to help decide the contest, Neal and the other candidates for statewide office were mostly spectators to the spectacle.

"You can't help but feel the excitement," Neal said. "It has the intensity of a Carolina-Duke basketball game."

The dinner attracted the elites of North Carolina's ruling party, from elected leaders to those seeking election, who paid up to $250 each to eat filet mignon at tables on the arena floor. Neal and other statewide elected candidates took to the stands, shaking hands with voters who waited for hours to get the best of the $25 cheap seats.

"Everybody's really excited and really pumped. It's overwhelming. I'm almost shaking," said Hillary Rosen, a 17-year-old student who skipped school so she could get in line for a seat at 3 p.m. She wore a T-shirt that read "This Hillary is for Obama."

She and the thousands of other excited party loyalists in the stands played out the rivalry between the two presidential candidates just as fans of the Blue Devils and Tar Heels might -- with competing chants, shouts and cheers.

"There's an aspect of competition to it for our respective candidates," said Amanda Hodges, 28, of Winterville, who came to the party with a "Hillary" placard. "But I also think that competition, it gives you that fight, that gumption to really do more."

About the only Democrats missing were former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who dropped out of the presidential race in January, and his wife Elizabeth. Nether is expected to offer an endorsement before Tuesday, but they won tributes from both Clinton and Obama on Friday.

"John Edwards ran with compassion and conviction, and his courageous fight is a fight I will see to the finish," Clinton said.

State Democratic Party chairman Jerry Meek beamed as he talked about how the competition between the two has helped North Carolina bring new voters into the Democratic camp. In the first three months of the year, nearly 75,000 people registered as Democrats in North Carolina -- nearly three times as many as in 2004.

"It's amazing. It's unprecedented," Meek said. In the 78 years the party has held a Jefferson-Jackson dinner, he said, "There's no indication that we've ever had any turnout like this."

Ken Eudy, a former executive director of the state party in the late 1980s, organized a similar event in 1988 for Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis, which attracted 6,000 people to un-airconditioned arena in late July. Dukakis was hot at the time -- way ahead of Vice President George Bush.

But that lead swiftly evaporated in August, a word of caution to Democrats feeling confident about their chances on Tuesday.

"Things can change really quickly," Eudy said.

But both Obama and Clinton vowed to support and campaign for the party's eventual nominee, promising victory in November.

"We are going to be united," Obama said. "Although we are campaigning vigorously and we have serious differences in policy and approach, one thing I can say is that our differences pale with our differences with the other party."


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