STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Political scandal is one reason that voters shifted to a Democratic congress last fall. But scandal is not a big issue now for at least one key voter group, according to a recent survey of rural voters.
They've been considered reliably Republican, and they are credited with giving President Bush his margin of victory in 2004. Now the survey indicates rural voters are up for grabs. Still, they're not getting much attention from presidential candidates, as NPR's Howard Berkes reports.
HOWARD BERKES: Some political consultants believe that the road to the White House is a country lane, winding through the nation's smallest places. That had organizers of this week's National Rural Assembly thinking presidential candidates would flock to their gathering in Chantilly, Virginia just outside Washington. Instead, conference organizer Ali Webb made this announcement.
Ms. ALI WEBB (National Rural Assembly): We invited all major party presidential candidates to speak to us at this rural assembly. We've had several yeses but mostly nos, and some yeses that turned into nos. And it's been quite an interesting experience.
BERKES: In fact, none of the 15 invited candidates planned to attend before an NPR story two weeks ago noting their expected absence. The story focused on the bipartisan survey, showing that Republican dominance of rural voters had withered away. The polling team declared rural America the new political battleground. So why was the National Rural Assembly striking out with candidates?
Mr. BILL BISHOP (Editor, Daily Yonder): The votes that count now are signed at the bottom of a check and there just aren't many checks coming out of rural areas.
BERKES: Bill Bishop edits an online rural issues newspaper called the Daily Yonder. He recently analyzed 2008 presidential campaign fundraising reports.
Mr. BISHOP: Only about five percent of the campaign contributions given so far to the candidates have come from rural America. So if now is the time of the campaign when candidates are raising money, in a way it makes sense to not show up at a rural event.
BERKES: There's something else rural America has failed to generate, according to Dee Davis, who directs the Center for Rural Strategies. That's the non-partisan group that started rural polling five years ago, hoping to attract candidate attention to rural issues.
Mr. DEE DAVIS (President, Center for Rural Strategies): What we haven't demonstrated in rural communities is we're worth the effort, and I think part of that is that rural communities haven't been tough on candidates who don't come forward with real plans. And so until there's a price to pay for ignoring this community, then the candidates are going take a free ride.
BERKES: Rural voters are not well organized, Davis adds, perhaps because they're spread far and wide. They don't see themselves as a political constituency, so politicians don't either. Polling indicates they don't hinge their votes on issues that are unique to rural life. But the National Rural Assembly did finally attract videotaped appeals from Democrats John Edwards and Dennis Kucinich and a live satellite feed from Hillary Clinton.
Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Presidential Candidate): I know you're working hard out in Chantilly developing a much-needed rural strategy. But when I become president, you'll be doing it in the White House. We need to move rural issues right into the middle of decision-making in America.
BERKES: Boy, the crowd loved that. But the respondents to the rural poll released two weeks ago rated Clinton as the candidate they liked least. She was as unpopular in the poll as illegal immigrants. It'll take more than promises of attention to win a significant number of rural votes.
Howard Berkes, NPR News, Chantilly, Virginia.
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