Hillary has to do well (if not win outright) in North Carolina to continue to make the assertion she is a viable candidate. Period.
The demographics in North Carolina most closely resemble those of other New South states (Georgia, Virginia, and Maryland) which Obama won handily. However, North Carolina has a few quirks that may make things interesting.
More after the jump...
Politics in North Carolina have always defied a simple explanation. Of all the Southern states, it has retained the strongest Democratic party. This will likely result in more moderate and conservative Democrats voting in the primary. There is also a very large group of "unaffiliated" voters with no compunctions about voting for a Republican for president and a Democrat for governor.
We share a sordid history of dirty politics with our neighbors to the south, from the use of the KKK to break up the Populist movement in the late 1800's (aided by fear mongering political cartoons about "Negro rule" ran by the state's major newspapers) to the infamous "White Hands" ad Senator Jesse Helms used to help defeat Harvey Gantt.
It's also a state that, while it had its share of racial strife during the Civil Rights movement, did a better job than the states in the Deep South of handling the transition. There's also a deep populist streak that continues to run through the state, contrasting with an acceptance of pro-business stance. The legislature has supported higher education for years, but only more recently began to seriously work to improve our public grade schools. A succinct summary of the contradictions of North Carolina can be found here.
North Carolina fits many of the traditional Southern values. North Carolinians are very religious - Senator Elizabeth Dole called NC the "buckle of the Bible Belt" and the Rev. Billy Graham is an NC native. We are fiercely patriotic about the military and the state has dubbed itself "America's most military friendly." Obama's remarks about bitterness and Clinton's fabrications about sniper fire are likely to matter more than a hollering preacher.
As dirty as politics can get in North Carolina, it was once called the "Wisconsin of the South." The Democratic party is powerful statewide, but the party machine is somewhat tempered by the inability of Democrats to win federal elections in NC in recent decades, the council-manager form of government in our cities, and a distrust for unions.
North Carolina has had very heavy job losses due to NAFTA, but there is far less bitterness about it here than in Ohio/Pennsylvania because of pragmatic government investment in bolstering our educational systems, maintaining a business-friendly environment, and prudently using incentives to lure new businesses. We've rapidly made a transition from textiles and tobacco to banking and biotech.
I hardly think myself qualified to speak broadly for the voters of North Carolina, but I have lived here my entire life, from one side to another, in our biggest city and in small towns, way out in the boonies and in the heart of the city and even in the (shudder) suburbs. I've got working class parents, a couple degrees, and friends of all backgrounds. I'm a Christian with a deep populist streak in me myself, but I understand economics (as much as anyone can) and mistrust government appropriately. So at the very least I'm well-rounded. (I drive a Ford and drink black coffee, if you're wondering.)
I started out as a John Edwards supporter, but switched to Obama as soon as Edwards dropped (it took my mother a bit longer but she followed me). I've done some volunteering for the Obama campaign and the level of excitement for Obama here in Charlotte is simply amazing, from the "feisty" crowd at the Charlotte townhall to the 700+ volunteers who showed up for the HQ's opening. Despite the constant negativity towards Obama I've seen in the news 24/7 over the past month, when I talk to people in NC, whether as a volunteer or socially, support for Obama still runs strong and the stories being harped on in the media aren't mentioned.
There are a number of endorsements that matter in North Carolina. Clinton picked up a big one when she received the endorsement of current Gov. Mike Easley. Gov. Easley's endorsement matters because he is popular with the general populace, he could have helped Obama makes inroads with certain demographic groups, and his endorsement could give cover to lower profile superdelegates leaning Clinton but worried about endorsing a candidate who will almost certainly lose their state. On the other hand, the important of Gov. Easley's endorsement is tempered by his not controlling a strong political machine. In addition to the reasons listed above, Gov. Easley is infamously laid-back about party building and campaigning for other Democratic candidates, which leaves him without a lot of favors to call in. The support of the North Carolina Democratic establishment also didn't help him when he lost a primary to Harvey Gantt. Former governor Jim Hunt is still very popular and would be a big pickup for either candidate. He has attended rallies for both Obama and Clinton and has not tipped his hand as to whether he will endorse.
Two other prominent North Carolinians with a good name in Democratic politics are Andy Griffith and Dean Smith. Andy hasn't tipped his hand on the presidential election yet (although he endorsed Bev Perdue for governor). We can only hope he endorses Obama and McCain's retort is that Andy Taylor would vote for him (Alan Keyes can chime in on who Jesus would vote for). Andy is good friends with NC Senate leader Marc Basnight, who has not yet endorsed. Andy also has a special place in my heart for his scathing portrayal of a demagogue in A Face in the Crowd. Dean Smith stays low key, but some see the Obama event with the tarheels as a de facto endorsement.
Twenty nine North Carolina lawmakers have endorsed Obama. This includes Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand, but not Speaker of the House Joe Hackney and Senate leader Marc Basnight. Thirty two NC majors have endorsed Obama.
Obama has now received the endorsements of three of North Carolina's seven Democrats in Congress. The other four have not declared. Harvey Gantt, the first black mayor of Charlotte and two-time US Senate candidate, has expressed support for Obama and for good reason.
Obama still has a commanding lead according to Rasmussen. While Obama is still polling evenly with McCain in North Carolina, Clinton is losing by eleven (if only we weren't a flyover state and the elitist media thought we mattered). With its population and demographics, as Chuck Todd put it "North Carolina isn't a pothole for Hillary, it's a sinkhole."