Obama gaining among rural voters

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

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
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.
Rich Clabaugh – Staff

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.

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.

"You go in and you check the little box so you vote only straight Republican," she says.

But Harms has always had an independent streak. She says she likes to vote for the best person. In 2004, George W. Bush got her vote. But this year, as far as she's concerned, the best man is Obama, and both she and her daughter are voting for him.

"Right now I'm so ticked by the way Republicans are doing things," she says. "[And] when McCain was asked how many houses he owned and he said, 'I don't know,' I was like, 'Whoa! Forget you buddy, you can't even begin to identify with me and my daughters."

Just around the corner from the diner is the Republican headquarters for Vinton County. It's a small storefront festooned in red, white, and blue with yard signs for statewide Republicans stacked out front. Cecil Reid, who was minding the shop, says they ran out of McCain/Palin yard signs a couple of days ago. He says the county is changing, but he believes McCain will still do well here, primarily because he believes Obama could never identify with lots of people here.

"I'm a Christian and I definitely believe Obama's got Muslim in him, I don't go for that," says Mr. Reid, a retired county employee who now works part time at a grocery store. "Plus McCain has the experience and I believe he can bring us out of this economy."

Reid believes the strength of the fundamentalist Christian movement here could ultimately help McCain. Indeed, one reason George W. Bush had a 10-point margin here in 2004 is because of a gay marriage amendment on the ballot.

"The turnout in places like Vinton County and southeast Ohio spiked in large part because of very smart political organizing around the gay marriage amendment," says Professor Burton. "That significantly helped Republicans like Bush."

Another social issue for some people here is race. Aaron Brooks, who was heading to an appointment at the county courthouse, says he's a Democrat but he's supporting McCain over Obama. "He's black," says Mr. Brooks. "It's not that I don't think he'll do a good job; it's just that I don't think he'll do a good job for us white people. That's just the way I feel."

Pollsters have also picked up lingering questions among some voters about Obama's race. But they believe this campaign will come down to economic issues. They also believe Obama's candidacy could in the end have a healing effect.

"These are the last vestiges of racial bigotry in this country," says pollster John Zogby, author of "The Way We'll Be" about the direction of the country. "But as the election goes, there's no question the financial crisis of the last few weeks has really undercut McCain/Palin."

Recent polls here have Obama ahead by as much as five percent. But 6 percent are still undecided. Tressa Sexton is one of them. She's a registered Republican, she says "only because of my husband." But she says she's really a Democrat. She's still not sure who she's going to vote for, in part, because she doesn't trust politicians in general.

"They can say what they want to say, but if you look at the economy over the last few years it's all been for the big people," she says.

Meanwhile, the Marist Poll reported Monday that the presidential race across Ohio "is no longer a statistical dead heat."

Among registered voters, Obama now outpaces McCain 48 percent to 40 percent. Among likely voters including those who are undecided yet leaning toward a candidate, Obama has 49 percent compared with 45 percent for McCain.

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