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The South in Obama’s backyard

Times Staff Writer

Barack Obama’s gamble to compete against John McCain this fall across rural white strongholds in Republican-dominated swing states has delicate roots in the vast corn and soybean fields and small towns of southern Illinois.

Obama won most of his home state’s southern counties in his 2004 Senate election and again in this year’s Democratic presidential primary against Hillary Rodham Clinton -- strong signs, his advisors believe, that he can break through to heartland voters in battleground states such as Missouri and Ohio, and even in traditional GOP territories such as Montana and North Carolina.

“Southern Illinois is the South,” Obama repeated during his primary campaign, a nod to its close proximity to Southern border states and also to his belief that gains made here could help him prosper elsewhere among rural and blue-collar voters.

David Axelrod, Obama’s chief strategist, said the campaign planned to feature some of the candidate’s southern Illinois supporters in media advertising and to dispatch them to neighboring states to press the case for Obama among independents and fence-sitters in both parties.

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But Obama’s electoral fortune in southern Illinois is an uncertain template for winning over white Democrats and independents who have gravitated toward GOP presidential candidates in recent years.

The risk of that strategy took center stage in the campaign this week, when Obama probed for support in Republican-dominated rural Missouri, but ended up accused by McCain of playing the race card.

The peril of calling attention to race in an effort to disarm its potency has emerged even in Obama’s stronghold here. Despite his well-connected network of supporters and adroit moves to co-opt the region’s leanings on coal, ethanol and guns, doubts still shadow his success.

Internet-stoked rumors about Obama’s religion, patriotism and liberal tilt on social issues have seeped into the area’s political discourse. They echo the hard-edged suspicions that turned white voters away from him in late-stage Democratic primaries in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky.

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“I’ve got good Democrats coming up to me saying, ‘Bill, we’ve got problems with your friend,’ ” said Bill O’Daniel, 84, a retired state senator from Jefferson County who befriended Obama in the Legislature and backs him for president.

They waylay O’Daniel at Mount Vernon’s restaurants and even at his doctor’s office with false claims that Obama is secretly a Muslim and refuses to say the Pledge of Allegiance. O’Daniel dismisses such rumors about Obama, who is Christian, but admits he worries about “how well Barack will go over here in the fall.”

Axelrod said he was aware that rural battlegrounds beyond southern Illinois would be “tougher terrain.” But hard-core skeptics are unlikely to be Democratic voters, he said, adding: “Does he have the capacity to do well compared to the historical marker for past Democratic candidates in those areas? We think so.”

The tough terrain extends to Effingham County, where retired businessman William Broom hears even more toxic chatter from acquaintances. Broom, 83, is an Obama supporter -- a rarity in Effingham, which Obama’s Republican Senate opponent, Alan Keyes, carried easily in 2004.

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Keyes is also black, but many of Broom’s neighbors cite race as a reason they cannot support Obama for president.

“They think I’m like-minded like them, and they’ll just volunteer straight-out how they can’t see voting for a black man,” Broom said.

One local source of Obama’s problems is Beverly McDowell, a social conservative and abortion opponent who was Keyes’ 2004 coordinator in nearby Richland County. In recent months, McDowell has churned out letters and e-mail broadsides warning of Obama’s supposed Muslim and Arab roots and “promotion of gay marriage.”

People are excited about Obama, McDowell says, because they don’t know what she calls “the true Obama.”

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She acknowledges that most of the anti-Obama diatribes she has relayed didn’t surface until he became a serious presidential candidate. “People are looking at him more closely now.”

But Democratic Party strategists say there may be a way that Obama can blunt the political effect of such prejudices.

The nation’s faltering economy could provide Obama the best antidote to counteract racial unease among wary rural voters, they say. Southern Illinois’ waning coal industry is a stark example. Mines have shut down across the region, and several counties have unemployment rates approaching 30%.

“A Democrat can’t write off that segment of the population and expect to be successful,” said pollster Mark Mellman. “The economic squeeze these voters face is so powerful that it has the potential to overwhelm concerns about race. He has a chance to exploit that.”

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The coal industry, once called king here, is dying. Although the state sits on huge reserves, much of the coal has a high sulfur content, which means that when burned it produces significant air pollutants. As Illinois’ senator, Obama voted both for and against versions of bills that would have boosted the mining industry by providing subsidies to develop the use of liquefied coal for transportation fuel.

“He’s made a show of his support for the coal industry,” said John S. Jackson, a political science professor at Southern Illinois University. Obama’s gestures to industry officials and environmentalists did not endear him to either faction, Jackson said.

At the same time, Obama worked to build a network of rural supporters.

During his 2004 Senate race, Obama crisscrossed the state’s southern counties, trying to find common ground. At fundraisers crowded with curious farmers and union men, he made light of his Chicago political base and African name, charming skeptics and cobbling together a sturdy political base of farmland progressives and conservatives.

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Good luck aided Obama as much as his diligence in trying to win hearts and minds: two rivals were dogged by marital woes.

But Obama struggled in southern Illinois during the primary, winning only a single county there. He ran third behind two better-funded white Democrats, but carried the state with a huge Chicago turnout. He then swept much of southern Illinois in the general election -- aided by the foundering campaign of his weak GOP Senate rival, Keyes, a social conservative.

Obama arrived in southern Illinois as a shiny new phenomenon: a black Chicago politician who professed interest in the lives of farmers and miners remote from his own experience.

“He wanted to come down here and learn more,” said Stephen J. Scates, a former Clinton agriculture official and a member of a prominent farming clan in Gallatin County on the Kentucky border. “People appreciated that.”

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In his political autobiography, “The Audacity of Hope,” a bemused Obama recounted how a state Senate aide told him to dress casually to fit in during a 1997 visit. But in the same book, Obama admitted he “didn’t know what to expect” on a tense 2004 campaign visit to Cairo, a southern Illinois river city shaken by racial conflicts in the 1960s, until he was reassured by a multiracial crowd that greeted him at a barbecue.

Settled by Kentucky and Tennessee farmers and North Carolina loggers in the early 1800s, southern Illinois is still steeped in border-state culture. Gun rights and antiabortion forces remain strong influences on voters, said O’Daniel, who held those views through 18 years in the state Senate.

Obama backed a state Senate bill that gave off-duty police the right to carry concealed weapons -- a position that foreshadowed his recent assertion that he supported 2nd Amendment rights to carry arms. But Obama hurt himself in southern Illinois during the presidential primary, GOP veterans say, by his comment suggesting that small-town residents are bitter and cling to guns and religion.

“People down here don’t want to be told what to do on the issues of guns and abortion rights,” said David Luechtefeld, a state senator from Washington County.

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Despite the whispers and Obama’s own gaffes, his backers fanned out to Iowa and other adjacent primary states early this year to advertise the candidate’s empathy on rural issues, including his careful tactical support for the use of corn in ethanol biofuel.

Buddy Maupin, a regional director of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, said a group of Illinois prison guards would be traveling to Indiana, Missouri, Kentucky and southern Ohio to tout Obama to fellow workers.

Maupin was won over four years ago after the state’s Democratic governor, Rod R. Blagojevich, moved to close a medium-security prison in the southern Illinois town of Vandalia. Union officials appealed to Obama, who agreed to fight for the prison and its 380 guards even though it put him at odds with the governor. The prison still operates.

“Most of the guys whose jobs he saved were Republicans,” Maupin said. “One of the traditions in rural culture is to look a guy in the eye and tell him the truth. We can do that for Sen. Obama.”

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steve.braun@latimes.com


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