SMITHFIELD, N.C. -- Digging his plastic fork into a succulent mound of chopped pork, John Davis, 64, says he'll vote for Hillary Clinton next week but "not because I like her. Because I have no other choice."
Joseph Gregory, sitting across the table at White Swan Bar-B-Q and Fried Chicken, said he seriously considered Barack Obama and "tried to put the race part out of it." But repeated controversies over remarks by the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., Obama's former pastor, have pushed the 56-year-old government worker firmly into Clinton's camp.
A rise in support for Clinton has turned the North Carolina Democratic primary into an unexpectedly competitive contest, one that could have enormous consequences for the nomination.
The New York senator still faces an uphill challenge in the state, which has a large black population, and Obama is expected to win. However, a Clinton victory in North Carolina - the sort of game-changing surprise that some say she'd need to become the Democratic presidential nominee - no longer seems out of the question.
Her recent gains are the result of several factors. She is waging an exhaustive campaign, as is her husband, former President Bill Clinton, who plans to appear in 40 North Carolina communities by primary day.
She's addressing economic concerns, particularly high fuel prices, and promoting her plan for a gas-tax holiday. She received the endorsement of Gov. Michael F. Easley, the state's top Democrat, who praises her, in a new TV ad, as "resilient" and "determined."
She has also benefited from her rival's struggles. Obama's attempts to reach out to middle-class whites were overshadowed by his news conference in Winston-Salem, where he denounced Wright's most recent comments about race.
Rep. G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina, a leading Obama supporter and member of a pioneering black political family, said Obama had been damaged by the Wright episode. Recent statewide polling found that Obama's double-digit lead in North Carolina had been sliced in half and now stands at roughly 6 percentage points.
Obama supporters such as Andrew Waters, 38, who works for a nonprofit conservation group in Salisbury, N.C., are cringing over the Wright affair. "It hurts the Obama campaign," he said. "I don't understand why they can't get him to chill out until next January."
After Clinton won in Pennsylvania 10 days ago, the focus of the campaign shifted to the May 6 primaries and whether she could survive a double defeat. Because Obama was heavily favored in North Carolina, a larger state with more delegates, the showdown in Indiana, regarded as must-win for Clinton, got more national attention.
Now, with polls tightening everywhere and Indiana a virtual dead heat (Clinton leads in some polls there), it appears unlikely that her candidacy will end anytime soon. Instead, questions are growing about how badly Obama will suffer from recent stumbles and his handling of the Wright matter.
Much as Pennsylvania tested the breadth of Clinton's appeal, a narrow Obama victory in North Carolina could be interpreted as a sign of trouble, particularly if the Illinois senator lost Indiana the same day. His ability to win the total popular vote, potentially important in the fight for superdelegates, could hinge on how he does in North Carolina.
"This is not a state that gives anybody landslides," said Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina. Obama has "got the potential to have a clean win, but he's not going to blow her out. It will give him the opportunity to proclaim [that] he can win a relatively large state. But she may get enough votes here to continue" her candidacy.
North Carolina recently passed New Jersey to become the nation's 10th most populous state. A bridge between the mid-Atlantic region and the Deep South, it is adding almost 200,000 new residents a year, including upscale retirees and workers drawn to an economy in transition from agriculture and textiles to education, banking and biotechnology.
Many of those moving in "are not tied to the history of North Carolina politics. It makes it a little more problematic to know exactly what they'll be doing" on Election Day, said Thad Beyle, a University of North Carolina political scientist.
Leslie Zanaglio, 46, quit her job as an insurance executive in Columbus, Ohio, and moved to Apex, N.C., not long ago. She said the furor over Obama's pastor makes her wonder "where Obama's judgment was for 20 years."
Obama is "a professor," said Zanaglio, who is backing Clinton "because of her experience and her positions on health care, the economy, handling foreign leaders and bringing the troops home. If she could win this state, then the superdelegates would really begin questioning Obama's strength. I think they're already questioning it."
Maggie Maurer, 34, of Carrboro, an English instructor with a pierced nose who doesn't look much older than her community college students, says that "people my age and younger are afraid to say they're not for Obama."
She's worried that "race is playing more of an issue in the campaign" and that after Wright's latest statements, "people are starting to wonder if there's some sort of black agenda at work. I don't really know what to think. I hesitate to call anyone a racist, but I think if you just put all the pieces together, it makes people nervous."
Gerald D. Bell, who teaches at the University of North Carolina business school, offered unsolicited advice to the Obama campaign when the candidate spent the night at the Carolina Inn the other day.
"What he needs to do is to tell people, 'I love America,'" said Bell, who didn't know that Obama used that phrase in a speech on campus the previous night.
"The psychology of what Reverend Wright has created has transferred almost subliminally to Obama," Bell said. "The most important question for people who are doubting Obama because of Wright is whether [Obama] loves America and whether he loves Americans."
Much like the bitter contest in South Carolina more than three months ago, the Wright controversy is likely to produce a polarized electorate on primary day, said a senior Obama aide. This time, though, it's not the Clintons who are getting blamed for inflaming racial divisions.
Democratic politicians and analysts in the state expect blacks to cast about one-third of the primary vote. Clinton is wooing them with a new ad that features poet Maya Angelou. But if Obama gets at least 85 percent of the black vote, as he has in recent primaries, Clinton could need as much as two-thirds of the white vote to win, a larger share than she's received in other big states.