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Record turnout expected in NC as Obama wins historic primary

By GARY D. ROBERTSON and MIKE BAKER
Associated Press Writer

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina voters made their choices Tuesday in the state’s first meaningful presidential primary in 20 years, casting million of ballots on what was expected to be a record-setting day for turnout.

Nearly all of polls closed at 7:30 p.m., and there was a winner right away: Barack Obama captured the Democratic presidential primary over Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“We’re ready for a change. We need a change for the better,” said James Bracknell, 63, of Franklinton, who voted for Obama. “I just don’t know about Hillary. Hillary couldn’t manage her husband, so I don’t know how in the world she could manage a country.”

The Associated Press made its North Carolina call Tuesday night based on surveys of voters as they left the polls.

Other early winners: Likely GOP presidential nominee John McCain and incumbent GOP Sen. Elizabeth Dole.

Election officials believe a modern-day record 2 million of the state’s 5.8 million registered voters cast a vote in the primary, between early voting and the steady stream of voters who went to the polls on Tuesday. State Board of Elections director Gary Bartlett said Democratic turnout could exceed 50 percent due to the interest in the presidential primary.

In interviews at a handful of North Carolina’s nearly 3,000 polling places, voters often cited the economy and the war in Iraq as the top issues on their mind. But others decided on candidates based on personality or looking for a house-cleaning.

Nearly half a million people voted early or cast absentee ballots before Tuesday ó more than half the total number of voters who cast ballots during the entire 2004 primary.

“It helps the turnout. We’re real excited about the number of new voters,” said Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue, who greeted a steady stream of voters at Pearsontown Elementary School in Durham. “It’s good for democracy. In this country you have hard-fought political battles, and then you have people vote on a day like this and it’s over.”

She and fellow Democratic gubernatorial candidate Richard Moore, the state treasurer, worked the polls Tuesday to catch up with any last undecided voters.

“We have run a good campaign. We have worked hard to get our message out across North Carolina,” Moore said outside the polling station at Pullen Arts Center near N.C. State University. “It’s really … in the hands of the voters.”

The boom at the ballot box appeared to hold the biggest sway in the Democratic races, including the top-ballot match between presidential hopefuls Obama and Clinton.

Bartlett said there were a few instances of unaffiliated voters complaining they were not offered a Democratic ballot and some issues with voting machines. But there was nothing like the machine problems of the 2006 primary, when most precincts switched to using new machines.

Bartlett said two precincts ó one each in Pamlico and Cherokee county ó were to remain open until 8:30 p.m. The Pamlico County precinct opened late when the poll’s chief judge didn’t arrive for duty, while a bomb threat called in to the Marble precinct in Cherokee County closed the polls there for about 30 minutes, he said. Police were investigating.

Jim Ellis, 73, a retired architect from Raleigh, said he chose Clinton in part because he doesn’t feel Obama has enough experience to be president. He also cited Obama’s reaction to the statements of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

“I came here not to vote for somebody but to vote against somebody,” Ellis said. “I don’t think he’s qualified and when the cream comes to the surface … if he’s elected president I think he’s going to be a disappointment.”

Clinton had her No. 1 supporter ó husband and former President Bill Clinton ó making four stops in North Carolina to help get out the vote. Obama, meanwhile, planned to hold his election night party alongside wife Michelle at Reynolds Coliseum at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

On the Republican side, an equally narrow race for governor has placed Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory and state Sen. Fred Smith in a competition that’s too close to call.

“By track record, McCrory has done an outstanding job,” said Kevin Csehoski, 46, of Huntersville, who voted at Francis Bradley Middle School before heading to work.

Brian Tremblay, 47, of Smithfield, said he chose Smith because he thinks the real estate developer will be able to use his business experience to fix the rising cost of health care.

“It’s getting to the point where small businesses can’t afford it,” Tremblay said. “Running a business and having to employ people … with the rising cost of insurance, I think he’d have a better handle on the issue.”

Elsewhere on the statewide ballot, Tuesday’s primary voters will select a Democrat who will likely challenge Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole in the November election.

The two leading candidates in that race, state Sen. Kay Hagan and Chapel Hill entrepreneur Jim Neal, are strikingly different, but both ended their campaigns by making stops in Charlotte. Each greeted voters at Greenville Memorial AME Zion Church, separated by only an hour.

“The voters have won as a consequence of having the presidential contest come to North Carolina,” Neal said. “It’s galvanized and brought more people to the process.”

But, he admitted, “It sucks some oxygen out of the air for those of us running down ballot.”

___

Associated Press writers Kevin Maurer in Franklinton, Estes Thompson in Durham and Ieva M. Augstums in Huntersville contributed to this report.

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