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By Jim Morrill

National politics took the stage Monday in North Carolina’s Republican U.S. Senate primary, a race that offers the year’s first real test of clout between the GOP establishment and grass-roots insurgents.

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a tea party favorite and possible GOP presidential candidate, headlined a Charlotte rally for Republican Greg Brannon. And former presidential nominee Mitt Romney became the latest establishment figure to back Brannon’s rival, Republican state House Speaker Thom Tillis.

“This is the first high-profile Senate primary pitting the tea party against the establishment,” said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the Cook Political Report.

Brannon, Tillis, and Charlotte pastor Mark Harris – the top three GOP candidates – each brought their campaigns to Mecklenburg County a day before Tuesday’s primary.

A new poll Monday showed the race could be tightening, with Tillis, of Cornelius, on the cusp of winning outright with 40 percent of the vote. If no one hits that number, the race heads to a potentially volatile July 15 runoff.

The eventual nominee will take on Democratic incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan in a battle that could determine which party controls the Senate.

The race already is one of the nation’s most expensive. Outside groups have spent nearly $8 million so far, according to the Federal Election Commission.

Much of that money has been spent on Tillis’ behalf by groups such as the U.S. Chamber and American Crossroads, started by former George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove. GOP congressional leaders, including Sens. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and John McCain of Arizona, have donated to Tillis.

As if to underscore the party’s split, McCain was briefly booed when a Brannon supporter mentioned his support of Tillis at Monday’s Charlotte rally.

Paul, speaking to around 250 people outside the NASCAR Hall of Fame, described Brannon, a Cary physician, as a champion of what the tea party calls constitutional conservatives.

“What North Carolina needs is what America craves,” he said, “not another rubber stamp, not another go-along-get-along politician, not another cog in the wheel. What America craves is a dragon-slayer. And that dragon-slayer is Dr. Greg Brannon. …

“Greg Brannon is a believer. And we need true believers in Congress. We’ve got enough of Democrat-Lite up there.”

Poll shows Tillis lead

A poll released Monday by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning firm, found Tillis at 40 percent, Brannon at 28 percent and Harris at 15 percent. Six other candidates had a total of 8 percent.

Brannon called for “a second Great American Awakening.”

“We’re voting for a message, a movement,” he said, scanning the crowd. “All I hear is the tea party’s dead. Doesn’t look like it to me.”

In a race where turnout could be key, Harris and Tillis both focused on getting out the vote. Both had help from high-profile Republicans.

Former GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee reached what the Harris campaign said were hundreds of thousands of voters with automated phone calls. Gov. Pat McCrory and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich recorded calls for Tillis.

After rallying volunteers in Raleigh and Winston-Salem, Harris made his own voter calls at his Charlotte office. A former president of the Baptist State Convention, Harris hopes to galvanize social conservatives.

“I do think that there’s a sense that we’re running against the machine,” Harris said. “Whether you call it establishment or not, just the big-money machine that feels it can buy its way into office. … We have an opportunity to elect someone who can truly go and represent the people of North Carolina without any strings attached.”

Tillis, meanwhile, was knocking on doors Monday evening in Huntersville.

“We’ve never bought into the Republican civil war story,” said Tillis spokesman Jordan Shaw. “In every poll we’ve seen, people across all spectrums of the Republican Party are supporting Thom Tillis.”

In 2010, the last nonpresidential primary, just 14 percent of voters went to the polls. Early voting numbers suggest the figure could be higher this year.

Through the end of early voting Saturday, 259,590 registered voters, or about 4 percent, had cast ballots. In 2010, the comparable number was less than 3 percent.

Another poll Monday had what might be relatively good news for Hagan, whom Republicans have hammered over her support for the Affordable Care Act.

The Elon University Poll found that 44 percent of North Carolinians believe the law known as Obamacare will make health care worse. Last November it was 54 percent.

“There is evidence that the animosity toward Obamacare is subsiding in North Carolina,” said Jason Husser, the poll’s assistant director. “More respondents still feel the Affordable Care Act will be harmful rather than helpful, but those numbers are declining.”

With Paul, Huckabee, Romney and Gingrich all taking high-profile sides, North Carolina’s Republican contest has been seen by some as a sort of proxy fight for 2016.

But speaking to reporters after the Brannon rally, Paul deflected such suggestions.

“We’re a big party; we have a lot of different voices,” he said. “There will be establishment candidates. There will be challenger candidates who aren’t career politicians. … I don’t know if you can read too much into the tea leaves of this thing.”

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