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The South in Obama's backyard

He hopes his success in southern Illinois indicates he can win over blue-collar and rural voters elsewhere.

August 02, 2008|Stephen Braun | Times Staff Writer

MOUNT VERNON, ILL. — Barack Obama's gamble to compete against John McCain this fall across rural white strongholds in Republican-dominated swing states has delicate roots in the vast corn and soybean fields and small towns of southern Illinois.

Obama won most of his home state's southern counties in his 2004 Senate election and again in this year's Democratic presidential primary against Hillary Rodham Clinton -- strong signs, his advisors believe, that he can break through to heartland voters in battleground states such as Missouri and Ohio, and even in traditional GOP territories such as Montana and North Carolina.

"Southern Illinois is the South," Obama repeated during his primary campaign, a nod to its close proximity to Southern border states and also to his belief that gains made here could help him prosper elsewhere among rural and blue-collar voters.

David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist, said the campaign planned to feature some of the candidate's southern Illinois supporters in media advertising and to dispatch them to neighboring states to press the case for Obama among independents and fence-sitters in both parties.

But Obama's electoral fortune in southern Illinois is an uncertain template for winning over white Democrats and independents who have gravitated toward GOP presidential candidates in recent years.

The risk of that strategy took center stage in the campaign this week, when Obama probed for support in Republican-dominated rural Missouri, but ended up accused by McCain of playing the race card.

The peril of calling attention to race in an effort to disarm its potency has emerged even in Obama's stronghold here. Despite his well-connected network of supporters and adroit moves to co-opt the region's leanings on coal, ethanol and guns, doubts still shadow his success.

Internet-stoked rumors about Obama's religion, patriotism and liberal tilt on social issues have seeped into the area's political discourse. They echo the hard-edged suspicions that turned white voters away from him in late-stage Democratic primaries in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky.

"I've got good Democrats coming up to me saying, 'Bill, we've got problems with your friend,' " said Bill O'Daniel, 84, a retired state senator from Jefferson County who befriended Obama in the Legislature and backs him for president.

They waylay O'Daniel at Mount Vernon's restaurants and even at his doctor's office with false claims that Obama is secretly a Muslim and refuses to say the Pledge of Allegiance. O'Daniel dismisses such rumors about Obama, who is Christian, but admits he worries about "how well Barack will go over here in the fall."

Axelrod said he was aware that rural battlegrounds beyond southern Illinois would be "tougher terrain." But hard-core skeptics are unlikely to be Democratic voters, he said, adding: "Does he have the capacity to do well compared to the historical marker for past Democratic candidates in those areas? We think so."

The tough terrain extends to Effingham County, where retired businessman William Broom hears even more toxic chatter from acquaintances. Broom, 83, is an Obama supporter -- a rarity in Effingham, which Obama's Republican Senate opponent, Alan Keyes, carried easily in 2004.

Keyes is also black, but many of Broom's neighbors cite race as a reason they cannot support Obama for president.

"They think I'm like-minded like them, and they'll just volunteer straight-out how they can't see voting for a black man," Broom said.

One local source of Obama's problems is Beverly McDowell, a social conservative and abortion opponent who was Keyes' 2004 coordinator in nearby Richland County. In recent months, McDowell has churned out letters and e-mail broadsides warning of Obama's supposed Muslim and Arab roots and "promotion of gay marriage."

People are excited about Obama, McDowell says, because they don't know what she calls "the true Obama."

She acknowledges that most of the anti-Obama diatribes she has relayed didn't surface until he became a serious presidential candidate. "People are looking at him more closely now."

But Democratic Party strategists say there may be a way that Obama can blunt the political effect of such prejudices.

The nation's faltering economy could provide Obama the best antidote to counteract racial unease among wary rural voters, they say. Southern Illinois' waning coal industry is a stark example. Mines have shut down across the region, and several counties have unemployment rates approaching 30%.

"A Democrat can't write off that segment of the population and expect to be successful," said pollster Mark Mellman. "The economic squeeze these voters face is so powerful that it has the potential to overwhelm concerns about race. He has a chance to exploit that."

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