Obama Camp Scours Southwest Virginia For Votes Barack Obama is seeking votes where Democratic presidential candidates normally don't. That includes tiny Appalachian mountain towns like those in southwestern Virginia. But local voters have many questions about Obama's positions, and he faces obstacles even among some Democrats.
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Obama Camp Scours Southwest Virginia For Votes

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Obama Camp Scours Southwest Virginia For Votes

Obama Camp Scours Southwest Virginia For Votes

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It's Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Ari Shapiro sitting in for Renee Montagne. Barack Obama is seeking votes where Democratic presidential candidates normally don't. His campaign is hoping to alter the electoral map that decides the White House. We'll get a wide view of that map in a moment, but first we begin at one key spot on the map, the Appalachian Mountains. They spread across battleground states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and the place we're going next.

INSKEEP: It's the remote western part of Virginia to which the Obama campaign recently sent a list of voters. That list went to a Democratic phone bank where a local resident started dialing.


DANNY EDWARDS: Hello, Jack Hillen(ph). Hi. I feel sure I know you. This is Danny. Is my voice familiar? Edwards.

INSKEEP: Danny Edwards is phoning his neighbors in Dickinson County, Virginia. He's working for every possible vote in a state that Democrats haven't won since 1964.


EDWARDS: Do you know if you'll be supporting Barack Obama for president this November? OK. Does that mean then that you would vote for the opponent?

INSKEEP: That would be John McCain. This voter is undecided, so Edwards starts chatting about the Republican nominee.


EDWARDS: He's 72. He's had cancer.

INSKEEP: And his running mate.


EDWARDS: Did you see the interview she did with Katie Couric the other night? It was. And you know, we've got to think about the big picture.

INSKEEP: Obama phone banks and campaign offices have opened in tiny mountain towns, just as they've opened in many areas across the country where Democrats haven't won in recent years. In this area, it's an effort made against the odds. Polls show the race is close in most of Virginia. It is not so close in the western hills, which could give big margins to John McCain. The area's Democratic congressman, Rick Boucher, knows his constituents voted twice for president Bush.

RICK BOUCHER: They are people who are inclined to vote Democratic, but need a bit of a higher comfort level with Senator Obama. He is new to them. They are interested in his views and mostly interested in just how knowledgeable he is about our region.

INSKEEP: This is a region where you drive around a curve and see breathtaking valleys in the mist, but jobs are scarce. Democrats often win by promising to deliver economic development. Republicans often win over issues like abortion, gay rights, and gun rights. And a local Republican official, Michelle Jenkins, doesn't seem too worried.

MICHELLE JENKINS: One thing about, you know, we - Obama came to this area and popped up a lot of offices. We didn't have to do that because we have such strong grassroots in the Republican Party in this area. We definitely have the organization in place to take care of business.

INSKEEP: John McCain just recently opened one local office where the receptionist is giving out McCain signs.

LOU SKEEN: Unidentified Man #1: Hey, how do we get a sign?

SKEEN: Come on around here, and you'll sign this form for us to show that you've got a sign.

INSKEEP: Receptionist Lou Skeen and her visitor chat about Sarah Palin's recent debate performance.

SKEEN: She had her facts and she had them straight.

INSKEEP: She did. She is what she is, right in the face. What I like most about her is she just - she is what she is, and she does what she says, and she says what's she's going to do. She's tops to me.

INSKEEP: And the receptionist offers more paraphernalia. She's got stickers that mock Barack Obama. He didn't impress local gun owners with a remark about, quote, "bitter people who cling to guns." That explains why Obama recently came to Lebanon, Virginia, to say this.

BARACK OBAMA: I will not take your shotgun away. I will not take your rifle away. I won't take your handgun away.

INSKEEP: Obama's backers hope personal appearances like this can win over suspicious voters. His targets include people we interviewed over breakfast at a Hardee's fast food restaurant. James Osborne(ph) says he took his kids to the Obama rally in Lebanon.

JAMES OSBORNE: I didn't want to miss it. This is historical elections, so, you know, I wanted to make sure the kids were involved, something coming that close to this small town.

INSKEEP: Yet even Osborne says he's conservative and will vote for John McCain. We did find support for Obama among local Democrats, though they are not united.

TINA GRAHAM: I don't trust him. I wanted Hillary. I voted for Hillary. She's got the experience. She's been there for the people.

INSKEEP: Tina Graham is like the overwhelming majority of Democrats in southwestern Virginia. She supported Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary. So did Rex McCarty. The two sat down together at McCarty's weekly newspaper. Local historic artifacts decorate the office walls.

REX MCCARTY: And through the years you accumulate things.

INSKEEP: Like old Confederate money.

MCCARTY: And of course, the documents were numbered. And they were signed by the county clerk at that time.

INSKEEP: Basically, the county was issuing its own money during the Civil War.

MCCARTY: It was. And the reason that we have these kinds of documents were - they were redistributed to families during the Civil War, because the soldiers were coming through burning all of the courthouses and destroying their documents.

INSKEEP: McCarty founded a local museum and keeps some of his artifacts in an old slave cabin, which just underlines how far this area and the nation would have to move to elect a black president. McCarty shifted allegiance from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama, but says other Democrats around here have not.

MCCARTY: Well, it's just race. We don't care where he comes from. Some folks, they don't care where he comes from, he's a black man. And I'll let Tina answer to that because I have no real issue with it.

GRAHAM: I don't know that I have an issue with it, as I came from Kingsport, and I went to school with a lot of black people. Until he was nominated to run for president, I never really thought about whether or not that I was racist or whatever you want to - however you want to put it, or whatever. It's just the fact that I think that he will represent them in what they want and in what they need and stuff, and forget about - you know, they're his people, they're his race.

MCCARTY: Let me just speak to that because, you have to understand, this young man is of a mixed-race family.

INSKEEP: And Rex McCarty says Obama's family struggled when he was young. He says poor, white people can relate to that.

MCCARTY: I'm from a family of 12. We were also treated less than what I think we should have been growing up.

INSKEEP: You mean, you were looked down upon by other people.

MCCARTY: Yeah, we were poor. Yeah, 12 kids. If you would've told me when I was growing up in a little community called Sinking Creek as a boy that I'd be running a newspaper or two, or that I would be doing the things I've done, and so on, I would have laughed at you and said that's too far from here. Those lights are too far over the mountain.

INSKEEP: Tina Graham listens to her fellow Democrat Rex McCarty but remains unconvinced. Even though she opposes John McCain, she's not sure what to do. She might support her Democratic Party ticket or else cast no vote for president.

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