By Mike Baker and Barbara Rodriguez
(AP) – President-elect Obama won North Carolina on Thursday, a triumph that underscored his political strength as he turned nine states that President Bush won in 2004 to Democratic blue.
The Associated Press declared Obama the winner after canvassing counties in North Carolina to determine the number of outstanding provisional ballots. That survey found that there are not enough remaining ballots for Republican John McCain to close a 13,693-vote deficit.
North Carolina’s 15 electoral votes brings Obama’s total to 364 — nearly 100 more than necessary to win the White House — to McCain’s 162. Missouri is the only state that remains too close to call, with McCain leading by several thousand votes.
Obama’s win in North Carolina was the first for a Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter won the state in 1976.
Of Bush’s 2004 states, Obama captured Virginia, Florida and North Carolina in the South, Ohio, Indiana and Iowa in the Midwest and Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico in the West. All total, Obama has won 28 states and the District of Columbia, McCain 21.
Obama ran an aggressive general election campaign in North Carolina after his wide primary victory in the state over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton suggested he could win a trove of electoral votes that most assumed would belong to McCain.
The Obama campaign’s focus on the state’s two-week early voting period was critical. Obama won more than 1.1 million early votes, giving him a 180,000-vote advantage heading into Election Day — a gap too great for McCain to overcome.
McCain spent months watching North Carolina from afar during the summer as Obama visited regularly, but the GOP nominee returned to the state in the campaign’s final few weeks as polls suggested an Obama victory was possible.
Obama spent millions of televisions ads that were buttressed by hundreds of staff members in dozens of offices to take advantage of North Carolina’s rapidly changing demographics and a large bloc of black voters galvanized by his bid to become the first African-American president.
North Carolina’s growing population includes a booming urban corridor from Charlotte to Raleigh along Interstate 85, while retirees from northern states — who are more willing to vote for Democrats — are filling the state’s coast and mountains.
Exit polls also showed that some 30 percent of voters considered race a factor in their decision, with the numbers split evenly among voters who backed McCain and Obama. Nearly one in five voters considered race an important factor.
The economy also played a role — with 60 percent of voters considering it the top issue, with those voters breaking slightly to Obama. The state’s manufacturing industry has been devastated by competitive imports, and the state’s banking economy centered in Charlotte was struck by economic turmoil that led to the downfall of Wachovia Corp., in the weeks before Election Day.
Obama’s win completed the party’s sweep at the top of the North Carolina ticket. Beverly Perdue was elected the state’s first female governor, while Kay Hagan unseated one of the GOP’s most respected figures in Sen. Elizabeth Dole.