RALEIGH, N.C. -- North Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Meek was looking around at all the people. In routine years, the North Carolina Democratic Party draws 450 to 500 people to its annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner.
With Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama as the headliners -- and a crucial election Tuesday -- thousands of party faithful filled the J.S. Dorton Arena on the state fairgrounds Friday to hear the two rivals in the extended and rancorous fight for the Democratic presidential nomination call for unity once the race is settled.
"We are going to be united in the fall," said Obama, who went on to give one of his stem-winders, updated with a mention of the crisis triggered by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Clinton, who went on to talk about "real and immediate solutions," said, "I will tell you this. If Sen. Obama is the nominee, you better believe I'll work my heart out for him. And if I'm the nominee, I know Sen. Obama will do the very same for me."
Obama and Clinton have sought the endorsements of former Sen. John Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth. They live in nearby Chapel Hill but were at Disney World in Orlando, though there was speculation that Elizabeth may send a signal that she favors Clinton.
While the 16-month duration -- and negative turn -- of the Obama-Clinton race have many Democrats worried that it will leave the party wounded in the fall, only helping Sen. John McCain -- in the Tar Heel state, it's all new. The excitement has resulted in the registration of "tens of thousands of new Democrats," Meek said, while GOP registrations have declined.
Obama was once more than 20 points ahead, but his lead has dwindled as Clinton has been trying to pare down his margin, stumping here all day Friday.
"He's been thrown off message for about a week," Meek said of Obama, a reference to Obama denouncing Wright after his disastrous press conference at the National Press Club on Monday.
Obama took an interesting tack on Wright. "I noticed that over the last couple of weeks there's been an attempt to make it about me. 'He doesn't wear a flag pin. He's got a funny name. That ex-pastor of his, that's a problem.' I understand this."
The crowd gave an approving roar.