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North Carolina has the potential to join the ranks of Ohio, New Hampshire and Florida as a permanently purple, battleground state, say several political observers and pundits in the state.

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama have been neck-and-neck for months in statewide polls.

Public Policy Polling, a left-leaning polling firm based in Raleigh, recently published a poll showing Obama leading Romney by 49 percent to 46 percent in the state, a virtual tie within the margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percent.

“We have polled North Carolina 22 times, and Obama and Romney have been within three points of each other 21 of those times,” said Tom Jensen, director of the polling firm.

He added that permanent demographic changes in the state could cause this trend to continue far beyond the upcoming election.

“The combination of young voters being so Democratic-leaning in North Carolina and so much of the population growth coming from more liberal states such as California, New York and New Jersey could make this long-term,” Jensen said.

Obama narrowly won North Carolina by about 14,000 votes in 2008, but a sputtering economic recovery has prevented the president from gaining more of a foothold in the state. North Carolina’s unemployment rate of 9.6 percent, tied for fifth-highest among states, ranks higher than the national rate of 8.3 percent.

The president’s victory in the state, which holds 15 electoral votes, was considered a surprise to the Obama campaign in 2008, said Mitch Kokai, political analyst for the right-leaning John Locke Foundation.

“(The campaign in) 2008 was the big campaign for hope and change, and in a lot of respects he was the unknown factor,” Kokai said. “At this point, there is a three to four-year record, and the economic recovery is nothing much to speak of.”

Republicans are also less likely to be caught off guard this time, Jensen said.

“Part of why Obama won is because the Republicans were caught sleeping, but that is obviously not a problem this year,” he said.

Brent Laurenz, executive director of the North Carolina Center for Voter Education, said Romney’s events with running mate Paul Ryan earlier this month and Vice President Joe Biden’s later visit to the state are a strong indication of how much both parties want to win North Carolina.

Kokai said Ryan could galvanize the conservative base in the state that hasn’t been as enthusiastic about Romney.

“With Ryan, they say, ‘Here is a guy that is a dynamic speaker, who is concerned with the budget and who hasn’t been afraid to challenge leadership in the House.’”

Tom Carsey, UNC political science professor, added that unprecedented amounts of campaign spending will keep the race very close as both campaigns continue to pour resources into North Carolina.

A poll by Rasmussen Reports, published earlier this month, showed Romney winning with unaffiliated voters by 30 percentage points in the state.

Yet there are 12 percent more registered Democrats than Republicans in North Carolina, which may mitigate the potential loss of some of Obama’s independent base, Jensen said.

Obama continues to have a substantial advantage among the 18 to 29-year-old age group, leading by 32 percentage points in the Public Policy Polling survey, though Laurenz questioned his ability to get this demographic to the polls.

Carsey said Democrats stated their intention to fight for the state by selecting Charlotte as the site of their national convention next month.

Though in the end, the state might be more crucial for Romney’s fortunes.

“According to the electoral calculus, it is possible for Obama to be re-elected without North Carolina, but the state will be crucial for the Romney campaign,” Kokai said.

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For a video with local experts talking about North Carolina as a swing state, click here.

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