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"Never could I have anticipated . . . a black man being at the top of the ticket"

In central Montana, one of the least racially diverse areas in the United States, residents grapple with the idea of voting for a black man.

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She says nice things about Obama.

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Another 30 minutes passes without a customer in sight.

"I haven't made up my mind. But I'm listening to what Obama is saying."

A Broader Perspective

One man in Lewistown who knew both Captain Delbridge, the auto mechanic, and Tommy Dell'ar, the black man who recently lived here, is Sheriff Thomas Killham. He's a tall, deep-voiced Vietnam War vet. There's a sign in his office that reads "Blunt Is Good."

Killham found himself in the Army in 1968, in basic training over in the state of Washington. "My first experience with blacks happened during a warm-up exercise drill," he recalls. "I was lined up with some other soldiers from Montana in a kind of line formation. There were these black soldiers in front of us. And I said, 'Look out, boys, we're coming through!' Well, you can just imagine what went on from there. The black soldiers shot looks. Then an officer called me into his office and said, 'You shouldn't use that word "boy." ' Private Killham learned a lot that day. Me and the other guys from Montana just didn't know how to talk to blacks."

He thinks he knows how many people here get to know about blacks, and he doesn't like the methods. "It's through TV and movies. And probably stuff that they've heard from their families. The first thing I tell a kid, a young person, who gets in trouble is to travel. Get out of Montana. Go see the country. Have other experiences."

"Cap was the finest gentleman I've ever known," he says. "Now, as to Tommy Dell'ar, if he'd of been white, purple, green, chartreuse, he would have been a knothead. He'd just get real down-low drunk. It wasn't a matter that he couldn't fit in. He wouldn't fit in. He'd go into some of these bars and get up in a redneck's face. He just had this 'I gotta make a scene' attitude. 'I gotta be loud.' Well, you take a Montana redneck cowboy -- and maybe there's not a prejudiced bone in his body -- and you get up in his face, he'll surely get right back in yours."

They won't be seeing Tommy Dell'ar for a while. "He's in Montana State Prison. Pulled a gun on somebody," the sheriff says. Dell'ar, 37, is serving a 60-month sentence for assault with a deadly weapon.

'Not a Single Black Person'

The town of Grass Range is old, weathered and down to 180 residents. The land is gashed as if huge claws dug up the earth at the foot of mountains close enough to cast shadows. It's easy to imagine Gary Cooper, who was raised on a ranch over in Helena, rounding a corner.

Betty Ahlgren describes herself as a "ranch widow." She lives here in a light blue mobile home festooned with rustic bric-a-brac. There are pictures of her children and grandchildren on a wall.

A black man she knew nothing about came into her life through a TV screen. "I saw Obama on the Oprah show. I don't even watch it every day, so it's kind of amazing that I was flipping the channel and there was this man. I listened to him and was very impressed with his ideas."

She voted for President Bush in 2004.


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