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Facing wipeout, North Carolina Dems put on brave faces at Charlotte convention

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — North Carolina Democrats will take a share of the national spotlight this week, but across the Tar Heel State, their party is in peril.

Republicans used control of the State Legislature to redraw congressional districts in their favor, leading two House Democrats to retire and putting another two, Reps. Mike McIntyre and Larry Kissell, in serious jeopardy.

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President Obama’s path to victory here is equally thorny. While he eked out a win in 2008 by fewer than 14,000 votes, most polls entering this week’s convention give Mitt Romney the edge in the race for the state’s 15 electoral votes.

Republicans are also poised to take back the governor’s mansion. Former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory (R) has consistently led Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton (D) in polls since incumbent Gov. Bev Purdue (D) decided not to seek a second term.

Add to that a battered state party apparatus that saw Chairman David Parker briefly resign in May over his handling of sexual harassment allegations, and you have a sobering backdrop for Democrats as they celebrate North Carolina’s first national convention in more than a century.

Purdue gave the rank and file a blunt directive on Tuesday morning.

“Party with a purpose,” she said.

At a rally-the-troops breakfast, state party leaders said Democrats need to use the week in Charlotte to register and re-energize voters if they want President Obama to repeat his 2008 victory in North Carolina.

“These conventions are not about pageantry,” Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) admonished delegates. “These conventions are not only about taking pictures and going home and showing those to your friends. These conventions are about energizing our vote and winning elections.”

Butterfield said “Rule No. 1” for North Carolina Democrats would be voter registration, and he said the party needed to sign up an additional 200,000 voters by Election Day.

The fourth-term congressman told The Hill he expects Obama to carry the state by a “razor-thin” margin, while Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) put the odds at “an even bet.”

In his remarks to delegates, Price bemoaned that Democrats in the state congressional delegation had races that were “tilted against them deliberately by the Republicans in the General Assembly.” In an interview afterward, he voiced hope that the Charlotte convention would “lift the whole ticket” for Democrats in North Carolina.

“We don’t know how much,” he said. “We have the evidence of four years ago that it can really be substantial,” he added, referring to Obama’s victory in Colorado in 2008 after the party’s convention in Denver.

For McIntyre and Kissell, however, the festivities in Charlotte have been nothing but a headache.

Both House members have spent months distancing themselves from the national Democratic Party after redistricting made their constituencies more conservative. They are among a handful of top Republican targets in November.

McIntyre made a late decision to attend the convention, but he is not embracing Obama’s reelection. Among the elected Democrats to address the state delegation Tuesday, he was virtually the only one who made no mention of the president. Instead, he focused on his own race, warning that his district would lose seniority on two key House committees if his Republican opponent, state Sen. David Rouzer, prevails.

Kissell has stayed away from Charlotte entirely, even though his congressional district is just a few miles away. That has drawn mockery from Republicans, who issued a press release offering to pay for the Uber car service to pick him up and bring him to the convention.

“President Obama is less than 10 miles away and Larry Kissell can’t run away fast enough,” said Andrea Bozek, spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “As hard as he might try to pull a Carmen Sandiego, North Carolina families know that Larry Kissell has supported President Obama’s job-destroying policies 89 percent of the time.”

Kissell’s absence met with shrugged shoulders at the state delegation breakfast and received only a passing mention at the podium. The only North Carolina Democrat who garnered less attention was disgraced former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), the Democratic vice presidential nominee of eight years ago. His name was never uttered.

Kissell “is sorely missed,” Butterfield said.

He wouldn’t comment on his colleague’s decision, but he made a point of praising McIntyre for showing up.

“Voters expect elected officials to attend their party’s political convention,” Butterfield said. “I think [McIntyre] will be rewarded for his willingness to embrace his party’s vision.”

For delegate J. Wayne Riggins, the disappointment was difficult to hide. He said voters appreciated political courage, not candidates who ran away from their party to the extent that they became “Democrat-lite” or “pseudo-Republicans.”

“I think in 2010, Democrats did more poorly than we would otherwise have done had we remembered our courage,” Riggins said.