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Rural Illinois May Offer Clues to Obama's Electability

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By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 15, 2008

CHESTER, Ill. -- The rookie state senator from Chicago had driven 340 miles to explore southern Illinois, but Barb Brown could muster only 20 Democrats in this small town on the Mississippi River to have breakfast with him. She asked her niece and sister-in-law, who were helping in the kitchen, to come out to pad the audience.

"We tried to convince people that they needed to come out and meet with this senator from Chicago, who on top of everything else was African American," Brown, a circuit court clerk, said of the 1997 gathering. "We had people looking at us strangely."

As Sen. Barack Obama emerges as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, worries linger in his party over whether he can improve on his poor showing among many rural and blue-collar voters in the primaries. Clues to that question lie in Illinois outside metro Chicago, a 400-mile swath of corn and soybean fields that, in the coal country of its southern reaches, shares more with Kentucky and Missouri than with Chicago.

Obama's courting of the region began soon after he was elected to the legislature in 1996. Southern Illinoisans interpreted the visits as a sign that he was already thinking about a future run for statewide office, but the trips also served as an education in the middle-American milieu that Obama's Kansan grandparents hailed from but that he knew little of, having grown up in Hawaii and Indonesia and spent his adult years in big cities. Before mostly white audiences, Obama would joke about his name -- rhyming it with "yo mama" -- and test his message about getting past divisions to solve problems.

Obama's advisers have pointed to his success in winning over "downstate" Illinoisans as a sign of his electability, but political analysts question the claim. Obama lost most of downstate Illinois in his Democratic primary race for U.S. Senate in 2004, and his big win in the general election that year came against Alan Keyes, a black conservative with a Maryland address. In this year's presidential primary, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) beat Obama in southern Illinois' struggling coal counties, highlighting the same weakness he showed in the coal regions of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Kentucky.

"He certainly has shown a good amount of reach into downstate and southern Illinois, but . . . it has been overstated," said Michael Lawrence, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.

To the extent that Obama has penetrated downstate, said Chris Mooney, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Springfield, it has been partly a result of his constituent service, a tool he lacks in the presidential campaign. "He was thinking Illinois from Day One" in Washington, Mooney said. "He has the classic attention to detail of a Chicago politician, the idea that 'we gotta get ours.' "

But Obama's push for support in rural Illinois has also driven his stances on several issues that could complicate his matchup against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). He is strongly in favor of ethanol, the corn-based biofuel that is being blamed for driving up food prices, and he supports the new farm bill, which McCain says is wasteful and at odds with Obama's call for reforming Washington.

In Obama's telling, he early on viewed downstate Illinois as a proving ground for his belief that the differences among Americans are smaller than they might appear. He describes Illinois in his 2006 book, "The Audacity of Hope," as a "microcosm of the country" and recalls the wonder of his week-long 1997 tour with aide Dan Shomon -- the "miles of cornfields" and roadside vendors with signs such as "Good Deals on Guns and Swords."

Most of all, Obama relished how the region defied stereotypes. After Shomon warned Obama to wear only khakis and polo shirts, "no fancy linen trousers or silk shirts," Obama enjoyed pointing out residents with linen slacks. When Shomon urged him not to request Dijon mustard at a restaurant, the puzzled waitress said she had it.

In the state legislature, Obama befriended rural lawmakers such as Sen. Gary Forby, a conservative Democrat and contractor from a coal county. "We're down-to-earth people, and Barack was down-to-earth people, too," Forby said last week. "What I liked about him was the way he was brought up, that he had never had anything gave to him." Forby is sure that rural Americans will agree: "If people could just talk to him for a few minutes, I don't think there will be an issue."

While other Chicago politicians sometimes travel south, it was obvious to Obama's downstate hosts that he was particularly interested in extending his reach. On the 1997 trip, Obama stopped at the Applebee's in Carbondale to chat with John Clemons, a lawyer and active Democrat. Six years later, Obama asked Clemons to oversee his U.S. Senate campaign in the area.


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