LIANE HANSEN, host:
From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.
Indiana and North Carolina are next in the presidential primary battle. North Carolina has the most delegates at stake with 134. On Friday, North Carolina Governor Mike Easley made a prediction. He said that if Hillary Clinton wins his state's primary Tuesday, she'll capture the Democratic nomination and the presidency.
But even Clinton herself isn't predicted victory over Obama in North Carolina. She told that to reporter Laura Leslie, the Capitol bureau chief for North Carolina Public Radio. And Laura's on the line from Chapel Hill. Thanks for speaking with us.
Ms. LAURA LESLIE (Capitol Bureau Chief, North Carolina Public Radio): Thanks.
HANSEN: Tell us what the mood's like in North Carolina. Are people excited that their vote is going to count this election year?
Ms. LESLIE: People are very excited. I mean, it's been decades since our votes actually mattered down here. And we had an unprecedented amount of attention both from the national media and from the candidates themselves. Hillary, Bill, and Chelsea are making just nonstop road trips. Fifteen towns here, ten towns there, college campuses. It's just been a really fierce ground war for them.
On the Obama side, he's been busy playing some basketball here and there with the UNC Tarheel team. Also had a rock concert on Friday in Chapel Hill with arcade fire and super chunk. So, yeah, people are pretty excited about that.
HANSEN: So I understand you went to a big Democratic shindig at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds in Raleigh and both of the Democratic contenders were there. Tell us what the reception was like.
Ms. LESLIE: It was really fascinating because usually when you cover campaigns like this, you never see both candidates under the same roof, in front of the same bunch of people so you don't get that sort of apples-to-apples moment. At the Democratic dinner, it was the two of them spoke to a crowd of about maybe four to five thousand people. And Hillary Clinton gave a good speech, got a warm reception, but when Obama walked into the room, the place just absolutely exploded with energy. They were shaking the rafters. So, it was a pretty dramatic difference.
HANSEN: You recently interviewed both Democratic contenders. As we mentioned Senator Clinton told you that she wasn't predicting victory in North Carolina. However, the polls are showing she's narrowing the gap. Do you think she can score any points in the state?
Ms. LESLIE: Well, it depends on what you consider scoring points to me. I mean, she is narrowing the gap some but it's still a pretty sizeable gap. Obama leads by somewhere around eight or nine points in most polls. That's even after she's picked up a few points. Now, I think a lot of folks would say that if she can get it to within single digits, if she can hold him to a lead that isn't overwhelming in a state that he was overwhelmingly expected to win, then, yes, it shows that she can reach out to African-American voters and still bring in the working-class white voters that Obama has said to have some trouble reaching.
HANSEN: What else have the candidates been doing to leave an impression in North Carolina?
Ms. LESLIE: Well, they've been agreeing on some topics and disagreeing pretty strongly on others. For example, both candidates said that they would wholeheartedly support each other, you know, if the other candidate should win the nomination. There was a lot of sort of reassuring of the Democratic activists that were in the audience at that dinner that their race would not split this party, that the party would come back together and unite behind whichever candidate winning the day.
But out on the trail they also are talking pretty strongly about their differences on the gas tax. Hillary Clinton, as you know, has said that she would support the idea of a gas tax holiday that would be financed by windfall profits on the oil companies. Senator Barack Obama calls it a gimmick, says it wouldn't save more than a few pennies than the average family.
So they're using that one issue to sort of highlight their differences and philosophy in terms of economic help for middle-class working families.
HANSEN: Talk a little bit about how race is playing out in the North Carolina primary campaign. I mean, after all the state elected Jesse Helms to serve 30 years in the U.S. Senate. But it also has a history of strong black business leaders and politicians.
Ms. LESLIE: Race on the presidential level - well, I mean, when you look at just simply how the electorate is splitting on terms of who it backs. I mean, you've got 34 percent roughly of our eligible voters in this election are African-Americans and they overwhelmingly favor Barack Obama.
But when you go a little further down the ticket is where it gets interesting because we have a couple of gubernatorial candidates who are trying to figure out how to, you know, make the best outreach to voters in this presidential year. And so we've actually had some fireworks in our gubernatorial campaigns of folks trying to diminish each other's civil rights credentials, if you like. And it's actually gotten kind of nasty at times.
HANSEN: Of course, North Carolina's the home state of former presidential candidate, John Edwards. Is his presence being felt in this primary?
Ms. LESLIE: It's more noted in the absence. I think both candidates have reached out repeatedly to compliment John Edwards on his race that he's run and to talk about Elizabeth Edwards and, you know, her passion for healthcare. But overall, John Edwards has been absence and is likely to remain so.
He has not come out and told anybody, even apparently some of his closest friends, who it is that he's backing and he's said that he's not going to endorse either candidate until it's settled.
HANSEN: Laura Leslie is the Capitol bureau chief for North Carolina Public Radio, and she spoke to us from Chapel Hill. Thanks a lot, Laura.
Ms. LESLIE: Thanks for having me.
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