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Rural woes may give opening to Obama

Monday, August 18, 2008

BELLEVILLE, Pa. -- The folks in this picturesque mountain community with red barns and Amish buggies have been voting overwhelmingly Republican in national elections for decades.

But tough economic times in Mifflin County and in rural areas all around the country have created possible openings for Democrat Barack Obama.

President Bush won nearly 70 percent of the county's vote in both 2000 and 2004, but the standard of living here has declined steadily during his administration.

The farm equipment factory that employed 500 workers here is closing. So is the milk plant. Farmers are facing skyrocketing feed and fertilizer costs, and gas prices are squeezing household budgets of those who now have to drive elsewhere for work.

Nationally, Bush won almost 60 percent of the rural vote, but Republican John McCain doesn't appear to be doing as well.

In an AP-Yahoo News Poll in June, rural voters favored McCain over Obama, 40 percent to 34 percent. About 34 percent of rural voters said McCain "shares my values," compared to 27 percent who said Obama did.

Reaching out

Recognizing an opportunity, Obama has opened more offices in rural areas than any other Democratic presidential hopeful in years, pushing a message focused on job creation. Neighborhood campaign teams have been going door to door talking about Obama and his economic policies. In Ohio, his campaign recently announced a "Barns for Obama" effort, in which farmers are encouraged to paint their barn with Obama's logo.

The economy is hardly the only issue, here as elsewhere.

Religion and race are still powerful forces in rural America, and whether Obama can gain ground in traditional rural safe havens for Republicans could hinge on whether voters focus more on economic issues or cultural values when they go to the polls. Likability is also likely to be a strong factor.

Republican Barbara Dettloff, 72, a retired bartender from Racine, Ohio, an Appalachian river town with about 750 people, voted for Bush in 2004 and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in this year's Republican primary. She's voting for Obama in November because "I think he's nice, and I think he's sincere in what he says."

But, she added, "I'm probably the only person in this town that does."

Indeed, many of her friends have told her they're either not voting for Obama or are staying home. "They just won't vote for him because he's black," Dettloff said.

Not ready to switch

Some other rural voters like Carol Fuller, 45, of Lewistown, Pa., blame the Republican Party for their economic troubles but aren't ready to switch to a Democrat like Obama.

At the Belleville auction house on a recent day, Fuller described the future as "bleak." In part because of gas prices, she said she and her husband are living month to month on the farm where they raise poultry and cattle.

She accused the Republican Party of price gouging at the pump, mismanaging the Iraq war and failing to address health care. She said she would have voted for Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton because she thought a woman could clean up Washington, but, as for Obama, "I just don't like him." She plans to vote for McCain.

Income dropping

Mifflin is one of nearly 150 rural counties where the median household income has dropped by more than 10 percent since 1999, more than three times the national decline, according to an analysis by The Associated Press.

That could make a difference in traditionally Republican rural areas come November. In Ohio in 2004, for example, John Kerry might have won the state and the presidency had he won just 45 percent of the rural vote. As it was, Bush carried Ohio's rural voters by an almost 2-to-1 margin, according to exit polls.

Rural voters accounted for more than 10 percent of the total vote in all but three of 12 closely contested battleground states in 2004, and more than 20 percent in four of them -- Iowa, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Wisconsin -- according to exit polls. In all but two of the states, Bush won the small-town vote overwhelmingly.

The AP analysis of median household income was based on 2005 estimates, the latest available from the Census Bureau. In some of the rural counties heavily dependent on farming, income may well have rebounded since then, as rising soybean and corn prices have helped offset feed and fertilizer costs.

And not all rural counties are hurting. The median household income improved during the Bush administration in many rural counties near metropolitan areas.


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