North Carolina has long prided itself on its moderate politics dating to the civil rights era, as well as its place as a New South leader and a hub for high-tech, banking and higher education.
Even though the state backed Democrat Barack Obama for president in 2008, it has maintained a socially conservative streak. North Carolina was represented for 30 years in Washington by the late Sen. Jesse Helms, the conservative stalwart who opposed abortion, gay rights and gun control.
Now the Tar Heel State finds itself drawing nationwide attention for a referendum Tuesday on a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as between a man and a woman, effectively slamming the door shut on same-sex marriages.
In the campaign's final days, Obama cabinet members have voiced support for same-sex marriage, former President Bill Clinton has lent his voice to robocalls opposing the amendment, and 93-year-old evangelist Billy Graham has been featured in full-page newspaper ads backing the gay-marriage ban. Experts expect the measure to pass.
"We're progressive in some areas but also fairly conservative like the rest of the Southeast," Peace College political scientist David McLennan said Monday. "This is an emotional issue and reflective of North Carolina's long evangelical past and the strength of the social conservative community, but doesn't reflect that we are moving even further to the right in terms of all issues."
North Carolina is the last of the former Confederate states without a similar constitutional amendment, reflecting the Democrats' control of the legislature until two years ago. More than 500,000 voters had cast ballots before Tuesday through one-stop and absentee options. That's more than in 2008, when Obama and Hillary Clinton were battling it out for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Tuesday's outcome isn't expected to forecast the fall election results, McLennan said. Democrats will gather in Charlotte in early September to nominate Obama for a second term; the Democrat narrowly won the state in 2008. Obama's North Carolina campaign spokesman issued a statement in March saying the president opposed the amendment.
North Carolina now bans same-sex marriage, but after Republicans took control of the General Assembly following the 2010 elections, lawmakers set a referendum on the proposed amendment. Backers say it is needed to prevent judges from granting same-sex marriages.
While polls suggest a majority of likely voters support the proposed amendment, an Elon University poll of adult residents in March found two-thirds support either gay marriage or civil unions.
"The Elon Poll is pretty consistent in indicating that people favor rights for gays and lesbians, but when you look at all the other polls that look at likely voters, they're all pretty consistent" in predicting passage, McLennan said.
One fault line that could determine the result is generational. Older residents, who tend to be more reliable voters, are expected to support the traditional view of marriage and back the amendment. State House Speaker Thom Tillis, a Charlotte-area Republican, added weight to the view that even if the amendment is passed, it may be reversed later.
"It's a generational issue," Tillis, an amendment supporter, told a student group at North Carolina State University in March. "If it passes, I think it will be repealed within 20 years."
Tammy Summers, 54, of Raleigh, said she would vote against the amendment because state law already bans gay marriage — and a constitutional amendment would make it harder to change.
The amendment also goes beyond state law by voiding other types of domestic unions from carrying legal status, which opponents warn could disrupt protection orders for unmarried couples.
"I don't feel like it's our country's right to deny rights to people who want to commit themselves in loving, committed relationships," Summer said. "If the church doesn't want to honor that, that's cool, that's their right. But I don't feel like it's our business."
Computer engineer John Stanson, 50, of Raleigh, said he would vote for the amendment.
"I believe that marriage is between one man and one woman," he said as he waited in line with his wife and two voting-age daughters to cast ballots during early voting Saturday. "The only thing the amendment does is defines what (marriage) should be."
The pro-amendment coalition Vote FOR Marriage NC found itself outspent by opponents nearly 2-to-1 through April 23, according to State Board of Elections records. Amendment backers reported spending nearly $1.1 million compared to the anti-amendment Coalition to Protect North Carolina Families.
While Obama has not publicly supported gay marriage, Vice President Joe Biden said Sunday he's "absolutely comfortable" with married gay couples getting the same civil rights and liberties as heterosexual couples. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Monday he supports gay marriage.
Testing Obama's influence is a divide in the black community, which traditionally has backed Democrats by huge margins. While NAACP president William Barber has been a leading opponent of the amendment, conservative black church leaders have been outspoken supporters.
"Historically speaking, African-Americans have been quite conservative on this issue. My point is they will continue to do so," said the Rev. Patrick Wooden, pastor of the Upper Room Church of God in Christ, a prominent black Pentecostal church in Raleigh. "Seventy percent of our children are born out of wedlock. That is devastating. That is more devastating to the African-American community than any of the things that our opponents are citing. Marriage shouldn't be weakened in our state. Marriage should be strengthened in our state."