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Change. That's the word Democratic Party chair Jerry Meek says he hears most when he talks to voters in North Carolina.

What's on voters' minds 

Change. That's the word Democratic Party chair Jerry Meek says he hears most when he talks to voters in North Carolina. Meek, much more of a grassroots organizer than his predecessors, has been knocking on doors around the state campaigning for local Democrats and getting a feel for the mood of the electorate.

He was recently in Watauga County, walking traditional Republican precincts. What he heard was important to voters there was not too surprising--traditional kitchen table issues like the economy, gas prices and health care. What he didn't hear, though, was a bit unexpected.

"I was surprised at how little I heard about abortion and gay rights," Meek said in an interview last week. "As I went door to door, there were not a lot of those hot button cultural issues."

The change theme, he said, can cut both ways since Democrats control the General Assembly, but Meek says he's heard more about corruption in Washington, D.C., than he has about Jim Black. And while immigration comes up, he says voters realize it is primarily a federal issue and he does not think it'll have a heavy impact on local races. "It's not an issue you can easily parley on a state level," he says.

The change dynamic, Meek says, is likely to work hardest against the party that has had a lock on Washington for the last six years, particularly in a year when, except for judicial races, there is no statewide race drawing in voters.

"This will be an unusual year for turnout," Meek says. "We could have the lowest turnout in history for a general election. As a result, it is not a test of preferences, but a test of intensity of preferences."

In North Carolina that means Democrats have a real chance to pick up additional seats in the state legislature, Meek says. He cites Van Braxton's race in the 10th Senate district as one possible pickup. Braxton is facing Willie Ray Starling, who won a bitterly contested primary over Stephen LaRouqe. So bitter, Meeks says, that LaRoque supporters may cross over.

Ty Harrell, running in House District 41 against Russell Capps, and Greer Beaty, running for House District 36 against Nelson Dollar, also have a strong shot in Wake County, where school bonds are a major ballot issue.

Meek is proudest of Democrats' efforts in Western North Carolina, where the strategy has been to reconnect with voters who drifted away from the party in the 1980s. That effort may help in areas like Ashe County, where Cullie Tarleton is running against Gene Wilson, as well as far-western Senate races. While that would be a big boost, he says, the party's effort to win back the west won't stop in November. "This is not so much about 2006 as it is about 2008 and 2010."

Elon Poll Results

Meek and others working state races say that while the war in Iraq is on people's minds, it is not something you hear much about when they're discussing why their vote will go one way or the other in state races.

It is undoubtedly driving the desire for change and, according to a statewide Elon Poll released last week, 29 percent of those asked say it's the most important issue facing the country. But asked about the most important issue facing North Carolina, Iraq falls to 3.6 percent, fifth on the list and just slightly ahead of gas prices. Terrorism and security, cited as the second-highest national concern, drops to eighth on the list of most important issues facing the state.

The top statewide issues are education, cited by 19 percent of respondents, and the economy (14 percent), followed by immigration (12.4 percent). Taxes were listed as the top concern by only 4.9 percent. In a breakdown of what issues are likely to influence voters' choices, the economy came out on top.

The poll has some ominous signs for U.S. congressional incumbents that could carry beyond this year's cycle. Asked if they had confidence in their reps, nearly 40 percent said they had little or no confidence, 43.4 percent said they had some confidence and only 14.6 said they had a lot of confidence. That may be why nearly 56 percent of those polled said they would either like to see their current rep replaced or would consider voting for a different candidate from the same party.

If numbers like that hold, expect to see stronger primary challenges in the next cycle.

As for the president, well, the headlines said the poll showed a boost, bounce or rebound, but George Bush's job approval rating, which went from 41.5 percent to 45 percent, hasn't cracked 50 percent since March 2005. He won the state in 2004 with 54 percent of the vote.

The Elon Poll, conducted from Sept. 24-29, surveyed 649 adults in North Carolina and has a margin of error of 3.92 percent. You can find all the results online at www.elon.edu/e-web/elonpoll.

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