In W.Va., Lingering Doubts on Obama

By Ruth Marcus
Monday, October 27, 2008

WILLIAMSON, W.Va. -- It's hard to find a place more Democratic than here in Mingo County, snug up against Kentucky in the southwestern corner of the state, where Mother Jones fought to unionize striking coal miners.

In 2004, when President Bush trounced John Kerry by seven points in this state, Mingo voted 56 percent for Kerry. Of 19,391 registered voters, just 1,741 are Republicans.

For Barack Obama, though, Mingo presents a decided challenge -- one that has implications beyond the West Virginia coal fields, implications that may linger beyond Election Day. Hillary Clinton beat Obama by 41 percentage points in the state primary, but by 80 points in Mingo, the biggest gap statewide.

West Virginia -- which voted twice for President Bill Clinton, twice for Bush -- is a long shot for Obama, but not an impossibility. Polls give John McCain the edge, but when vice presidential nominee Joe Biden stopped in Charleston on Friday, Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller said his polling showed Obama a single point behind.

The AFL-CIO added West Virginia to its list of targeted states last week; the American Federation of Teachers, the state's largest union, has launched radio ads; and United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts joined the state's Democratic governor, Joe Manchin, on a bus tour through southern counties, including Mingo, this month.

"We feel like we can pull this one off," said State Senate Majority Leader Truman Chafin, who represents Mingo. "It was tough going for a while. People were mad about Hillary losing this thing." Even now, he acknowledged, in places like Mingo, "there's probably not a lot of enthusiasm for [Obama]. It comes down to what's best for me and my family."

An Obama win is "a possibility, and a month ago I thought it was out of reach," said Judy Hale, president of the West Virginia AFT.

West Virginia Republican Party Chairman Douglas McKinney said he was unconcerned. "A minority of them have made their peace" with Obama, he said of Democrats who backed Clinton in the primary. "Obama's entirely too liberal. His positions on gun control and abortion are more than most people in West Virginia can overlook."

Indeed, hours of interviews with voters -- outside the Wal-Mart in Mingo, up the road in Logan County, and north of Charleston in the swing county of Jackson -- illustrate Obama's uphill climb and raise questions about similar voters in states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania. It does not take long to hear the worst rumors about Obama -- or to wonder how the people repeating them would deal with the fact of an Obama presidency, if it comes to pass.

"If I do vote, it will be Republican," said Charles Mount, a 31-year-old mechanic and registered Democrat. "There's just something about Obama. You hear so much about him being a Muslim. I don't personally believe that but I don't know that. I'm not going to take a chance on the leader of our country."

"If Barack Obama gets in, it basically will be giving our America away to whatever . . . ," said Jamie Willis, 42, who voted for Clinton in the primary. Her husband, Brent Willis, 37, a contractor and registered Democrat, filled in the blank. "To be brutally honest with you, if Obama goes in there the [blacks] are going to go crazy -- and I'm not a prejudiced person."

Terry Sanders, a court clerk, said he "wouldn't vote for Obama if he was running for dog catcher. His values are completely different from mine. Why's he got a problem with the flag? He wouldn't put his hand over his heart. It casts a lot of doubt about what kind of man is this fellow."

These are not incendiary quotes cherry-picked from among multiple interviews or cajoled out of people reluctant to express a view. They came from the first eight people who stopped to answer my questions -- of whom just one said she supported Obama, citing the backing of the mineworkers union.

In my interviews, Obama fared better among the swing voters of Ripley, in Jackson County, which has a slight majority of registered Democrats but voted solidly, twice, for Bush. At the local Kroger, many shoppers said they had voted for Bush, regretted it, and were torn this time around. "I voted for Bush last time and I don't feel like that turned out real well," said Teresa Cottle, 36, a registered nurse who is undecided. Voting for McCain would "be like putting Bush back in office," said Tonya Taylor, 46, who backed Bush but "might just" vote for Obama.

If Obama can convince enough such voters -- here, and in the growing eastern panhandle of the state -- he just might win West Virginia. But as the comments from voters in Mingo suggest, he would have a tough road ahead.

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