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Obama gaining among rural voters

Southeast Ohio, where many small communities are economically hard-hit, may be a bellwether.

By / October 13, 2008

Main street view: Vinton County, the poorest in Ohio, has voted Republican in recent years. Lately, however, many people here are leaning toward Barack Obama – wanting change.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor


McArthur, Ohio

Barack Obama is gaining support in the rural, conservative town of McArthur, Ohio, reflecting nationwide trends in which the Illinois senator has been consolidating support among independents and in some traditional Republican strongholds.With just three weeks until the election, political analysts say absent an October surprise it will be difficult for Republican John McCain to turn things around. That's a challenge his campaign, which has been written off before, says it is delighted to take up.

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But the test before McCain is stark, even here in Vinton County in the rumpled Appalachian hills of southeast Ohio where George W. Bush won by 10 points in 2004.

It's an area with strong beliefs about such issues as gay marriage and abortion, but one that also faces severe economic challenges.

When social issues dominate the agenda, Republicans tend to do well here. When the economy dominates, the Democrats can mount serious challenges. That's what Obama is doing here.

In the past four days, both McCain and Obama have campaigned here. Obama has even chosen to prepare for Wednesday night's debate here in Ohio.

The economy and the financial crisis top most voters' agendas here, as they do nationwide.

The Buckeye State has long been a national bellwether, crucial to winning the White House. No Republican candidate has ever won the presidency without winning Ohio's 20 electoral votes. And no Democrat has done so either, at least in recent history.

"It's a bellwether state for a reason: because it really does look like America," says Michael Burton, a professor of political science at Ohio University in Athens. "There's a northeast that looks like the Northeast, there is a western side that looks like the Midwest and a southern tier that has a very Southern feel to it."

That's evident here on Main Street in McArthur. It's the county seat. It has one stoplight. The old brick court house sits across from the Main Street Diner and the Hotel McArthur.

The median income in the county is $25,000. That's one reason Patty Elkins, who owns the diner, says she can't raise her prices. A grilled cheese sandwich costs $1.50. It's also the reason, she believes, Democrat Obama has traction here.

"This is a very poor part of the country and Ohio – it's the poorest," says Ms. Elkins, whose family has owned the diner since 1984. "People here are ready for change, they just can't afford higher oil prices, higher food prices – they just can't afford it - so they're leaning toward someone that's saying: 'I'm going to take care of the economy, I'm going to take care of the healthcare system and try to straighten this out.'"

Laura Harms and her daughter Jennifer were having lunch in a booth nearby. Ms. Harms comes from a "staunch, very staunch Republican" family.