West Virginia Voters Wrestle With Race, Rumors Though Barack Obama lost West Virginia's primary to Hillary Clinton by a wide margin, recent polls show the Democrat is now running neck-and-neck with Republican John McCain in the state. Still, some residents are struggling with supporting a black presidential candidate.
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West Virginia Voters Wrestle With Race, Rumors

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West Virginia Voters Wrestle With Race, Rumors

West Virginia Voters Wrestle With Race, Rumors

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Now to a state that wasn't supposed to be a battleground. President Bush carried West Virginia twice, and for nearly a century, no Democrat has won the White House without winning West Virginia. In the primary last spring, Hillary Clinton easily defeated Barack Obama, but recent polls suggest Obama is running neck and neck with John McCain. We sent NPR's David Greene to West Virginia for a visit.

DAVID GREENE: Back in May, Hillary Clinton landed in the cold town of Logan, West Virginia. The sounds were of people coming up to Clinton, begging her not to give up.

(Soundbite of people talking)

(Soundbite of music)

GREENE: When I returned to Logan this week, there were no presidential candidates. The sounds in the autumn colored mountains are from Blue Grass musicians gathering in a park.

(Soundbite of music)

GREENE: And downtown, a marching band is helping break ground for a new state building. This is where I meet Paul Hardesty(ph).

Mr. PAUL HARDESTY (West Virginia Resident): What you're looking at here basically is small town America in central Apalache.

GREENE: This small town welcomed John F. Kennedy in 1960, and people are still talking about that.

Mr. HARDESTY: This is a very strong Democrat part of the state. Our ratio here is 10 to one, Democrat to Republican on registered voters. And people were thrilled to see Hillary when she came.

GREENE: Paul saw Clinton. He's a Democrat and has worked for two governors. He did vote for President Bush in 2000, because he didn't think Al Gore liked the coal industry. But this year, he's going for Obama. Paul says Obama talks about clean coal, and has a strong economic message.

Mr. HARDESTY: People are going to vote their pocketbook. The economy is in the tank, people here are hurting.

Ms. JUDY BAISDEN(ph) (Cashier): You're at Price Alliance Bowling Alley in the city of Logan. There's another bowling alley that we won't mention yet.

GREENE: That's Judy Baisden, she's working the register. And from here she says she's watched this mining community lose jobs and people. It is a proud place.

Ms. BAISDEN: But Logan needs help bad. Whoever is going to help Logan, that's who I'm going to be for.

GREENE: She's always been for Democrats.

Ms. BAISDEN: My grandfather raised us, you be a Democrat, and you never change. So I don't know if he'd turn over in his grave if I changed to Republican or not.

GREENE: Judy says much of her family is sticking with the Democrat, Barack Obama. As for Judy, she is wavering, in part because of what she's heard from friends. Clearly, the rumors and chatter about Obama haven't gone away.

Ms. BAISDEN: Oh, I've got one friend that sends me so many emails about him, you know. And it's all this stuff - things he did when he was little, his church, the minister, the things that that went on, that put a question in my mind.

GREENE: What questions did that raise for you?

Ms. BAISDEN: Whether he is really an American or not.

GREENE: Across the street at Choppers Barbershop, we interrupt the conversation.

Mr. JACK BAISDEN: We were just talking about the election.

GREENE: While you're getting your hair cut?

Mr. BAISDEN: Yeah.

GREENE: Jack Baisden's getting a $10 cut. He's no relation to Judy Baisden over at the bowling alley. Jack owns a gardening center in town. He's a Democrat, can't decide who to vote for.

Mr. BAISDEN: Neither one of them just reaches out and grabs me. Obama seems like a Harvard lawyer that's kind of speaking above my head, and McCain don't really tell you a whole lot of anything, other than round and round the bush he goes, you know it.

GREENE: Whatever he decides, Jack doesn't believe the polls showing Obama close in West Virginia. He says while race isn't a factor for him, it may be for older people.

Mr. BAISDEN: There's people out here that they'll say they're not racist, but they're not going to vote for a black person.

GREENE: Around town, we meet people like Tommy Lee, he's a 56-year-old Air Force veteran who's voted Democratic all his life. Now he's backing McCain, he says it wasn't a hard switch.

Mr. TOMMY LEE (Air Force Veteran): knot at all. Obama don't have no military experience whatsoever. None. McCain does.

GREENE: Tommy also says he wouldn't be ready for a black president.

Mr. LEE: I wouldn't.

GREENE: Why not?

Mr. LEE: Because I don't think blacks have enough to run the country.

GREENE: Tommy says bluntly that he is prejudiced. He also says if a black candidate had more experience than Obama, it could help him overcome his prejudice. There's a different side to the story in Steve Nagy(ph), a retired miner. He's outside a gas station eating Cheeto's. And who you're voting for again?

Mr. STEVE NAGY (Retired Miner): Ha?

GREENE: Who're you voting for?

Mr. NAGY: Obama! Obama! Oh, yeah.

GREENE: Obama, he says, stands for poor people. Never mind any talk of racism here.

Mr. NAGY: I'm 84 years old. I had a lot of good colored people. They didn't bother me. I didn't bother them. They were good to me and I was good to them. That's all I can say.

GREENE: With that, Steve's on his way to meet a friend outside the bowling alley. David Greene, NPR News Logan, West Virginia.

NORRIS: And you can see photos of Logan and the people who live there at our website npr.org.

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