Russell Mechling Jr. (left), 78, and his wife, Sheila (right), stand in their office lobby at Fayette Engineering in Uniontown, Pa. Russ has traditionally voted Democratic; Sheila is still undecided about whom she will vote for in November.
Russell Mechling Jr. (left), 78, and his wife, Sheila (right), stand in their office lobby at Fayette Engineering in Uniontown, Pa. Russ has traditionally voted Democratic; Sheila is still undecided about whom she will vote for in November. David Gilkey/NPR
Sam Wood (left) and Rich Miner talk politics at Wood's roadside corn trailer in Uniontown, Pa.
Sam Wood (left) and Rich Miner talk politics at Wood's roadside corn trailer in Uniontown, Pa. David Gilkey/NPR
Like many towns across the country, Uniontown, Pa., is struggling through tough economic times. The voters there have historically been friendly to Democrats, but Sen. Barack Obama faces some challenges in this part of the swing state — Sen. Hillary Clinton won nearly 80 percent of Fayette County's vote in the Democratic primary, and a recent Time magazine poll shows Republican Sen. John McCain with a 20-point lead among white male voters nationwide.
Fayette County is the area of Pennsylvania that once powered the steel industry. Coal was taken from the ground in places like Uniontown and then burned into fuel.
Sam Wood, 84, worked in those now defunct coal mines.
"You couldn't see the stars at night," he recalls. "All you saw was red sky."
Nowadays, Wood sells ears of sweet corn by the roadside in Uniontown. They're so sweet that customers can eat them uncooked while Wood talks about things like the election.
"I think our country's in bad shape," he says. "See, I remember the other Depression. I was only about 8 years old, but I got a good memory. We always had a man for the time when this country was in bad shape. I don't see any now."
Wood says he has thought about McCain but is unsure about him.
"Now, I like his vice president. Not because she's good looking, but I think she's got a lot of common sense," Wood says. "And you know what? She don't owe anybody anything in D.C."
Although he is a registered Democrat, Wood says he'll vote for the Republican ticket. He says Obama hasn't impressed him much and that it was Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin who really made the difference in his choice.
Rich Miner pulls up to the corn stand. He says he has thought long and hard about the election. Miner, 68, works for the local sewage authority and voted for Hillary Clinton in the primary. These days, he says, he looks at McCain and sees a carbon copy of President Bush, which he doesn't like.
"Obama? I guess we take a chance on him. He's a rookie. But he sounds good," Miner says.
But this isn't an easy decision for him. He says there was a time he might not have supported a black candidate.
"I myself was one time very prejudiced," Miner says. "But I ain't no more. I just changed my attitude. I've always been around colored people. I work with them. I've always worked with them, and I found early on that blacks sort of took advantage of the situation. I don't know, anymore — I think they're OK as long as they do their end of the job. I don't see nothing wrong with that."
Miner says he's optimistic about the job Obama would do as president.
"He sounds like he's working for the middle-class people," Miner says. "That's where he comes from. Hopefully he'll do us some good."
Industries and businesses come and go in this part of Pennsylvania, but Fayette Engineering has hung on. Russell Mechling Jr. recently retired after 46 years as president of the company, and he says although he's voting for Barack Obama, he doesn't go around boasting about it.
"You know it's a little hard when you think about back in the primary, when 80 percent of your neighbors didn't vote for him, to go around telling people, 'You made a big mistake, you should have voted for him,' " Mechling says.
But he says there's another reason he's careful to not be too vocal about his support.
"You know, there still seems to be the race issue. Nobody admits it — nobody. ... But I think there is a racial component there," he says. "It's there. And it shouldn't be."
Mechling says he hopes people take a look at the other differences between Obama and McCain.
"I think there are people who've been telling themselves, and telling their friends and neighbors, they just wouldn't vote for Obama, who are thinking now that, wait a minute — given the choice they may vote for Obama," he says. "I think he may do better in Fayette County than you may have expected."
Democratic candidates are used to doing well there. Bill Clinton, Al Gore and John Kerry all won Fayette County in their respective presidential election years, and Barack Obama hopes to add his name to that list.