Clinton Courts Rural N.C., Where Obama Leads

If there is still a path open for New York Sen. Hillary Clinton to win the Democratic nomination, voter Kathy Snipes hopes it runs through places like Rocky Mount, N.C.

Snipes was among a group of women who waved Clinton campaign signs along a highway on Sunday in Rocky Mount, a city of about 60,000 people in rural eastern North Carolina. Clinton found a lot of support in Pennsylvania communities like this, outside of major metropolitan areas.

Both Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama are campaigning in North Carolina, which has its primary May 6. Obama has a sizable lead in the polls, but Clinton is making an aggressive effort to cut into it, in part by targeting the same kinds of voters who helped her win last week in Pennsylvania.

Voters like Snipes say Clinton can make gains by winning support on pocketbook issues, which are especially important in smaller North Carolina cities suffering from the decline of the textile and tobacco industries.

Clinton backer Kathy Warren says this is why she is optimistic about the senator's chances.

"We need jobs desperately out here. Our kids — they come out of school out here, and they see nothing for them. And her husband — we had some good years during the Clinton years," Warren said.

Wooing North Carolinians Through Economic Issues

Doing well in smaller towns like Rocky Mount is essential for Clinton, because Obama is running so strong elsewhere. A survey by Public Policy Polling found Obama far ahead in North Carolina's larger cities and suburbs, with Clinton running close only in rural areas.

For the past several weeks, the Clinton campaign has put much of its effort into wooing those small-town Democrats. Ferrell Guillory, a political analyst at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says there has been some joking in the state that former President Bill Clinton is going to small towns in search of "the bubba/barbecue" vote. This week alone, he will campaign in 11 small and medium-sized towns.

Meanwhile, Guillory says, Sen. Clinton is playing up issues such as trade and job creation. "The Clinton campaign seems to have targeted working people — white people, mostly, who have felt the economic strain of a state in transition. Those voters give her the best opportunity to close the gap," he said.

Of course, Obama is making a play for those voters as well. Although his campaign is not likely to inspire jokes about the "bubba vote," it did hold a barbecue this weekend in Rocky Mount,which organizers called an "Obama-q."

Many of Obama's supporters also say the economy is the biggest issue in Rocky Mount. But high school teacher Barbara Holt says Obama can address it better because she finds him more in touch with the rural South.

"There's a lot of people here who feel like they've been left behind, and I think he can connect to them," Holt said. "He has those Midwest roots, and I don't think they're that different from Southerners. There's a lot of rural, small-town background in Obama."

Voters Divided Along Racial Lines

Polls also show a sharp racial divide among North Carolina Democrats, similar to that seen in several other states, with most white voters backing Clinton and African-Americans strongly preferring Obama.

That trend was evident at the barbecue, where the crowd was overwhelmingly African-American, much to the disappointment of Obama supporter Julie Hagens, who says the Illinois senator has been running an inclusive campaign.

"You can see him just reach out and love white, reach out and love black, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans," Hagens said. "He is just a people person. Is that reciprocated, do you think, from people in those other racial groups?"

Obama is scheduled to appear Monday about 20 miles from Rocky Mount, in the city of Wilson, N.C. It will be the smallest town in the state to host an Obama event since his campaign began, underscoring the role that both candidates now realize rural voters may play next week.

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