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In a continual campaign to covet N.C. voters, Trump is losing to the coronavirus

WINSTON-SALEM — President Donald Trump is fighting to fill a U.S. Supreme Court vacancy, howling with unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud and warning that violent mobs are infiltrating the suburbs. 

But on a recent morning along Arbor Street, a peaceful tree-lined road with stately brick Colonials and Tudors near Winston-Salem, the women who are the targets of Trump's messages were confronting much more tangible threats.

As conservative activists canvassed the neighborhood, one young mother, a baby in her arms, shouted through a closed window that she was in quarantine. Across the street, another was focused on teaching her children their daily lessons at the kitchen table.

And a few doors down, 49-year-old Christina Donnell, an independent who voted for Trump four years ago, said through a black face mask that Trump's “terrible” handling of the pandemic and divisive leadership are her chief concerns.

“It’s embarrassing to the country," said Donnell, a lawyer who previously lived in Washington. “He’s an embarrassing role model.”

In one of the nation's most consequential swing states, Trump's push to inject new dynamics into the final weeks of the 2020 election is being overshadowed by the frightening realities of everyday life during a pandemic. Trump and his allies hope the escalating Supreme Court nomination fight will help unify a fractured Republican Party that has lost its grip on college-educated suburban voters, particularly white women.

But for many, the coronavirus and the related economic challenges are much more pressing issues.

Trump's challenge is acute here in North Carolina, a state that his senior aides describe as a “must-win." A loss in the state, which Democrats have carried only once at the presidential level in the last 30 years, would make Trump's path to a second term incredibly difficult and signal dire challenges elsewhere on the electoral map.

Public polling, backed by private discussions with strategists from both Trump's and Democrat Joe Biden's campaigns, indicate that North Carolina remains a true tossup five weeks before Election Day. And lest there be any doubt about Trump's concerns about his standing here, he has traveled to North Carolina every week for the last five weeks, second only to Pennsylvania.

Trump's standing will also help decide races for governor and senator, a set of competitive contests that has drawn more political advertising dollars to North Carolina than any other state in the nation. More than $246 million has been spent or reserved to communicate with North Carolina voters online and on television about the presidential and Senate contests so far, according to the media tracking firm Kantar-CMAG. Florida follows with $236 million and then Arizona with $223 million.

Trump has also dispatched Vice President Mike Pence to North Carolina twice over the last five weeks in addition to four visits by Trump's children.

The president's daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, a North Carolina native, led a Women for Trump event in the eastern part of the state last week to help energize the president's base. She visited again on Monday.

"This is a must-win state for whoever is to become the next president," Lara Trump said in an interview.

She said the Supreme Court debate might help motivate each side's base, including some “fence sitters” who may not have voted at all. But she pointed to a more serious concern for suburban women.

“As far as suburban women are concerned, they want safety and security. They've seen what has happened to so many of our Democrat-run cities across America," Lara Trump said. "It is absolutely frightening to see the chaos, the destruction, the violence.”

After her comments, she led an event for roughly 200 people in which the pandemic was not mentioned at all on stage or by several voters who asked questions.

The vacant Supreme Court seat came up only once.

The conversation was far more focused on the prospect of voter fraud, an issue President Trump has raised repeatedly as polls show him trailing, though experts report there is no significant evidence of such fraud.

As in other swing states, the Democrats' closing message has been focused on health care, especially the Trump administration's ongoing court fight to overturn former President Barack Obama's health care law and the protections for those with preexisting conditions that are part of it.

Biden's team has largely relied on advertising to communicate its message, however, because the candidate himself has not been a regular presence in North Carolina — or anywhere — during the pandemic. Biden made his first trip as the Democratic nominee to the state last week. His running mate, Kamala Harris, made her first appearance on Monday at a Raleigh event.

“He needs to pick up his game some,” said former Gov. Jim Hunt, a Biden ally, calling on Biden's campaign to intensify in-person canvassing. Hunt said the election is “as tight as a tick.”

North Carolina is a glaring example of the deepening divisions that have defined U.S. politics in the Trump era.

Obama in 2008 was the only Democrat to carry the state after 1976, but it continues to trend a bluer shade of purple thanks to an influx of college-educated Northern transplants who have packed into North Carolina's urban and suburban areas, especially around Charlotte and Raleigh. Those booming regions are voting more and more Democratic while the state's more rural areas are voting more and more Republican.

It is truly a case of two North Carolinas in which voters are focused on completely different sets of issues, said Morgan Jackson, a leading Democratic strategist who is working on the state's gubernatorial and Senate races.

The swing voters in the suburbs swung from Obama in 2008 to Trump in 2016 and are threatening to swing to Biden because of the pandemic.

“When you think about the issue set they’re focused on, their lives are still centered around COVID,” Jackson said.

Biden's team privately believes it has already won the suburbs, while those close to Trump's campaign are hopeful that the Supreme Court fight might shift voters' attention away from the pandemic, especially as the confirmation fight intensifies over the coming weeks. Trump nominated federal judge Amy Coney Barrett to fill Ruth Bader Ginsburg's vacancy over the weekend. Republicans hope to finalize the confirmation before the Nov. 3 election.

The final-weeks drama is making life difficult for conservative leaders like Chris McCoy, a senior adviser for the group Americans for Prosperity Action, which has spent months reaching out to suburban swing voters to help Republican U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis win a second term.

"This has been one of the more grueling canvassing efforts I’ve ever been part of," said McCoy, a veteran of North Carolina politics. “It’s really touchy out there. We have good days and bad days.”

Back on Arbor Street, there were more lawn signs expressing support for Black Lives Matter than Trump.

Donnell explained that she voted for Trump four years earlier because she thought he would be better on the economy and taxes. But two years into his presidency, she was so appalled by his behavior that she left the Republican Party and became an independent.

Still, she's not sure how she'll vote in November. She's “not a fan” of Biden, either.

The Supreme Court may influence her vote, but not in the way Trump hoped.

“I would hate to see the court become ultra-conservative. I'm a lawyer. That's a big issue for me. ... I'm worried that women's rights might disappear,” Donnell said. “That's what would sway me toward Biden.”


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Keto-friendly, gluten-free bakery opens today in downtown Greensboro

GREENSBORO — On the day before the grand opening of Oh Goodness Bakery, two people tapped on the glass of the South Elm Street storefront before 11 a.m., hopeful the keto-friendly sweet shop was already open for business.

Owner and baker Shayna Wesselink has her fingers crossed that the buzz around town and on social media about her new business venture will translate into sales and happy customers when the doors officially open at 7:30 a.m. today.Tuesday

“I’m excited to be filling a need in the community,” Wesselink said. “I wasn’t interested in opening a bakery just to offer another kind of cupcake. There’s a lot of amazing bakeries in and around Greensboro.”

Wesselink instead wanted to offer an option for those who follow the ketogenic diet — a high carbohydrate, low fat and moderate protein diet that has become popular among dieters over the past several years. Wesselink and her husband, Jesse, have found success in shedding pounds by adhering to the keto diet.

“If your body has lots of fat coming in and not lots of carbohydrates coming in, it puts your body into what is called ketosis,” a natural metabolic state, Jesse Wesselink said. “So basically, you’re training your body to use fat instead of create fat and store fat.”

Not only is Oh Goodness Bakery ideal for those following a keto diet, but all of the treats offered also are gluten free, a by-product of using nut-based flours like almond flour as opposed to grain flour.

But for people who don’t adhere to a keto diet, it’s unlikely they’ll notice the sweets lack ingredients they're accustomed to in baked goods. Wesselink said part of the reason she chose to open a keto bakery was the overwhelming support from friends and family who don’t follow the diet but still enjoy the treats.

“There were enough people saying ‘why don’t you give it a try?’”

She left her previous job as an office manager to pursue baking in September of 2019, baking her products at a local, pay-by-the-hour commercial kitchen and selling the baked goods at the Triad Farmers Market. She also managed to get her products in a few local stores, including Cupcake Cuties in Wallburg.

It wasn’t until she and her husband called about the “for rent” sign at 601. S. Elm St. in downtown Greensboro that she thought the dream of opening a bakery could become a reality.

For now, the Wesselinks are operating out of a small portion of the 2,000-square-foot store. They're waiting to see how business goes in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic before expanding into the larger space, one they envision to have plentiful seating, both inside and outside. In the meantime, all orders are to go and cash only.

Wesselink said she will offer a handful of signature items daily, including chocolate and blueberry muffins, whoopie pies and peanut butter and chocolate crackle bars. On any given day, she said there will be about 12 different treats for people to choose from, alternating seasonally and as she experiments with recipes. Savory treats also will find their way to the menu. Most items will cost about $4, Wesselink said. 

In addition to the baked goods, Oh Goodness will offer coffee, hot teas and bottled water.

On choosing the bakery's name, Wesselink said, "Obviously, because it tastes good. But it's goodness for the community, too — something new opening up, and hopefully new opportunities."

"And," Jesse Wesselink added, "it's your reaction when you try the product." 

People can learn more about the Oh Goodness Bakery by visiting it on Facebook and Instagram, as well as their website at ohgoodnessbakery.com. Hours are subject to change, but this week the bakery will be open on Tuesday and Wednesday from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., on Thursday and Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Photos: Oh Goodness bakery

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Hit hard by the pandemic, Triad Health Project says 'we need help'

GREENSBORO — For decades, they've come together around the idea that it's important to gather for meals.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic came. Those with HIV/AIDS, and the volunteers there to break bread with them, had to gather for the thrice-weekly meals and fellowship on and around the porch of Triad Health Project's Higher Ground — at a distance, of course — with plates in their laps.

Maintaining the family-style nutritional meals is particularly important for individuals whose immune systems are significantly compromised by HIV, according to Triad Health Project officials.

They estimate that more than 85% of clients with HIV have incomes at or below the federal poverty level.

But Higher Ground is facing a dilemma now that the weather is getting colder.

The agency is looking for a way to still safely hold the meals outside. Like maybe with a tent or an aluminum covering. And portable heaters.

Holding the gatherings inside the Bessemer Avenue house that serves as the home of Higher Ground, like in times past, isn't possible anymore because of the pandemic. The agency wants the community to know that even small unrestricted donations of $10 help tremendously.

"We have to turn to the community and say we need help," said Adriana Adams, Triad Health Project's associate director.

Officially described as a communal retreat and resource center for people infected or affected by HIV/AIDS, Higher Ground is known by insiders as a tightly-knit community of people whose "client" and “volunteer” labels fall off at the door. Here, crayon artwork and pictures of smiling faces jockey for space in nooks and crannies from room to room.

Those who have been part of this family over the years — the churches, groups and individuals signing up to bring meals or drop off donations — try hard to make Higher Ground a place of acceptance and understanding for those people still struggling with society’s fear of AIDS.

"So the meal is a very important part of what takes place here," Adams said. "You need people who understand your experiences."

Although more is known about the virus since the 1980s when it began making headlines, some of those who have been diagnosed still face discrimination.

Time and again, health experts have pointed out that the disease cannot be passed through casual contact, yet the stigma can be "soul crushing," according to Triad Health Project executive director Mark Cassity, who once ran Higher Ground.

Higher Ground has its roots in the Guilford Regional AIDS Interfaith Network, a group of Greensboro clergy in the early 1990s who wanted to be a healing force for people dealing with HIV and AIDS. The group paired small groups of parishioners with someone with a diagnosis and became their surrogate family.

The agency grew to provide emotional and practical support not only to individuals living with HIV/AIDS, but also their loved ones.

Later, a local businessman let the group move into a house he owned on a tree-lined residential stretch of Bessemer Avenue, free of charge.

While the group has received grants and federal funding to offset some of its additional work, that money is largely restricted to very specific things.

That doesn't include the huge tent and heaters the agency wants so meals, and fellowship, can continue outside. 

As the pandemic gained steam this year, Triad Health Project had unexpected costs. The agency, which was already working on a shoestring budget, was forced to shift its budget to buy laptops for case workers and cellphones so clients could reach them.

That didn't leave much left for an outdoor covering and heaters.

"We can make a promise to you that we will do right with this money," Adams said. "Our clients are our heartbeat."