Winchester Still Waiting and Wondering

By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 2, 2008

It's lunchtime at Winchester's Twilight Zone Cafe, in what Republicans call the "real Virginia." A carpenter, an unemployed Republican and two mechanics wash down Philly cheese steaks with cold Budweiser and sweet tea and crack wise about the dour economic news and Sen. Barack Obama talking change on CNN. Joe Bageant takes a last bite of his fried egg sandwich and decides it's time to talk politics with the "real Americans that pay the bills and do all the damn work."

Bageant, 62, grew up in Winchester. He knows many of the working-class folks here and has written about what he calls their "Republic of Redneckia" culture in his book "Deer Hunting with Jesus." These are people who are "Republicans by default," he says. And Winchester, an old southern town founded in 1744 that has been home to George Washington, Stonewall Jackson, Harry Byrd and Patsy Cline, lies in the reddest of red hearts in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley.

But with just days left before the election, what Bageant is finding surprises him. Sure, there are still plenty of McCain/Palin signs around town. But down at the smoke shop, over at the Royal Lunch tavern, his working-class friends are all over the map.

"I've had to eat my words," Bageant said. "Undecideds in Virginia are usually just conservatives playing coy. But this time, by golly, it's different. I'm running into real undecided people. The working-class culture is confused. They're traumatized. There's an anxiety underneath, and their faith in things being the way they have been is greatly shaken. Those that are changing are significant, even if the numbers are small. The elections are so close these days that small things can be dramatic."

That's a worry for Sen. John McCain and a source of hope for Obama.

To win the 13 electoral votes of Virginia, a state that hasn't voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964, Obama will need to win big in more than urban Northern Virginia, Richmond and Hampton Roads. He will also need rural, working-class voters -- if not voting for him, at least not turning out in big numbers for McCain.

The co-chairman of McCain's Virginia campaign, State Del. Christopher B. Saxman (R-Staunton), said that he is still confident McCain will do well in rural Virginia but that Republicans have never had to work this hard. "There are a lot of new voters now," he said. "We don't know how they're going to vote."

That is why Obama appeared last Monday just down Interstate 81 in Harrisonburg, the first Democratic presidential contender to show up there since Stephen Douglas did so in 1860. That is why he has 50 campaign offices with 250 paid staffers in the state. And that is why journalists from around the globe have been showing up on Bageant's front porch and asking for a guide to the voters of the "real" Virginia, because this year, what they think might change the course of history.

These are the people Bageant calls American serfs, looked down upon, caricatured and ignored by mainstream culture. "It's amazing the focus they're getting now," Bageant said as a reporter from Sweden pulled up. "Look who's the swing state now."

At the Twilight Cafe, Bageant swapped stories with the crowd about elderly Nutsy Baton, who used to parade through the streets with her baton day and night, and Lonzy Baker, the hermit who lived at the dump and recited Shakespeare. When it came to politics, the group was first all bluster.

"I'm gonna vote for whoever ain't runnin,' " joked Richard Dooley, one of the two mechanics. "Bush already proved it doesn't matter what we think."

"I vote for T. Boone Pickens," said James Bryan, the carpenter. "Obama could get elected, but there's too many racist people. . . . And I wish they'd stop calling him black. He's more Arab. His father was Ugandan or something."

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