updated 10/8/2008 1:43:34 PM ET 2008-10-08T17:43:34

It's no coincidence that Barack Obama did his preparation for this week's presidential debate in North Carolina's western mountains. Or that on the day of the debate, Michelle Obama was rallying voters on the state's Atlantic Coast. Or that the Democratic nominee spent the morning after the first presidential debate in the state.

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John McCain? Voters here haven't seen him in six months.

North Carolina hasn't voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter and was on nobody's list of battleground states a year ago. But now, public polls and an avalanche of Democratic voter registrations indicate North Carolina is no longer a safe Republican state. And McCain's efforts to win its 15 electoral votes don't match Obama's full-court press.

"I am surprised — and I think you've got to give it to Obama," said longtime North Carolina GOP operative Ballard Everett. "He ramped up in North Carolina early, he's moved out there and kept those troops working hard."

Without question, Obama and his troops have a lot of history to overcome: President Bush twice won North Carolina by double-digit margins, and White House candidates from both parties have largely ignored the state since 1992.

But North Carolina has changed in recent years, with a million residents moving into the state since 2000. The state's May primary was expected to be an afterthought, but Obama's extended race with Hillary Rodham Clinton for the nomination helped drive a boom in Democratic voter registrations.

Since Jan. 1, new voter registrations in North Carolina have favored Democrats nearly 4-to-1.

"So I said to myself, 'Maybe we should just keep on coming to North Carolina,'" Obama told fellow Democrats in Asheville last weekend. "Despite the pundits, despite the prognosticators, despite the cynicism, it turns out, 30 days out, we are right in the hunt in North Carolina."

The Obama campaign has opened 40 offices in North Carolina and says it has enlisted 17,000 volunteers, who two weekends ago knocked on 107,000 doors. Obama has attracted tens of thousands to events in Asheville, Charlotte and Greensboro. Last week, he outspent McCain 8-to-1 on television advertising in North Carolina markets — by far the biggest disparity among the battleground states, according to an analysis by the Wisconsin Advertising Project.

McCain's campaign has 30 offices in the state and is boosting the number of paid staff from 20 to 30; Obama's campaign, by contrast, says it has close to 400 paid staffers in the state.

McCain last visited North Carolina in June, when he met privately with evangelist Billy Graham. He last appeared before voters in May at Wake Forest University, where he told the crowd he appreciated "the hospitality of the students and faculty of West Virginia."

He corrected himself as the audience laughed.

"McCain doesn't have to work as hard at this state as Obama has to," said Ferrel Guillory, who heads the Southern politics program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But Guillory added that there are "not a lot of issues playing to McCain's advantage right now in North Carolina."

McCain's campaign says it remains confident that North Carolina will remain in the GOP column. His supporters are talking up the Republican's credentials as a commander in chief in a state with several major military bases, and counting on thousands of GOP volunteers.

"North Carolina has been a reliable Republican state where conservative, low-tax smaller government principles resonate with voters, and ultimately that will happen in this election as well," said Buzz Jacobs, McCain's campaign manager for the Southeast.

Vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin was in the state on Tuesday. Speaking in eastern North Carolina, where Democrats for decades have voted Republican for president, Palin didn't let up in her relentless attacks on Obama.

The economy remains a focal point of Obama's message in North Carolina, as in many other states. An Elon University poll of North Carolina residents found that twice as many people blamed Republicans for the poor economy than Democrats, and Obama's surrogates pounded away at the issue at a rally earlier this week at the State Farmers Market in Raleigh.

"People are hurting and they're concerned. Many of them are scared," said former Gov. Jim Hunt, the elder statesman of North Carolina's Democratic Party.

A year ago, Hunt says, it was hard to imagine that any Democrat would be competitive for president in the state.

But, he said, "This is a very different kind of year."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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