[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/04/18/art.clinton0419a.ap.jpg caption="Clinton aides are saying Obama has a major advantage in the state."] WINSTON-SALEM, North Carolina (CNN) - Hillary Clinton's campaign Friday looked to lower expectations for the upcoming North Carolina primary, telling reporters that a Clinton win here on May 6 would be "the biggest upset of the century."
Ace Smith, the campaign's North Carolina state director, told a group of reporters at Wake Forest University that Obama "starts very strong here," an advantage owed to the state's Democratic cocktail of African-American voters and affluent, educated professionals concentrated around the Raleigh-Durham area.
With the heightened attention being paid to the primary, the state's Democratic voter rolls are swelling. Since January 1, nearly 110,000 North Carolinians have signed up to vote as Democrats in the semi-open primary, and nearly 69,000 have signed up as unaffiliated voters, according to the state board of elections.
In addition, more than 19,000 Republicans have switched parties and registered as either Democrat or unaffiliated in order to participate in the contest since the beginning of the year. Over 67,000 new African-American voters in North Carolina have registered over the same time period.
"Our measure of success is knocking this down to single digits," Smith said of the race, estimating that as many as 1.5 million people could vote in the contest, which will award 115 pledged delegates.
Asked if Clinton can win the primary, Smith said, "No, that would be the biggest upset of the century."
Earlier this year, Obama scored overwhelming victories in two bordering states with very similar demographics: South Carolina and Virginia.
Despite that, Smith was optimistic about the role unaffiliated voters – who can take part in the primary along with Democrats – will play in the contest.
He argued that Obama "has lost traction" among independent voters since the nomination fight began. Clinton and Obama ran roughly even among independent voters in the March 4 contests of Texas and Ohio.
Smith, who managed Clinton's operations in California and Texas, said the New York senator is looking to perform well in the eastern and western parts of the state, rural regions with small towns that have seen visits from former president Bill Clinton. The campaign has also run two television ads here.
Smith criticized Obama for hedging on whether or not he will agree to participate in another debate to be hosted in North Carolina, despite pressure from prominent local Democrats like Gov. Mike Easley and former Gov. Jim Hunt.
"He is looking to brush off the state of North Carolina," Smith said of Obama's reluctance to commit to a debate in the state.
- CNN Political Producer Peter Hamby