LOGAN, W.V. - West Virginia's Democratic leaders Saturday embarked on a winding, eight-county bus tour through the south of the state, and in one small mining town after another, they sold Barack Obama to small crowds of Democrats with remarkable directness.
"He is black," was the first thing Kenny Perdue, the state's AFL-CIO president, said. "The gentleman that's in the White House and John McCain — they're white men. And I'm absolutely ashamed of what George W. Bush has done to this country."
The president of the United Mine Workers, Cecil Roberts, spoke after Perdue in a parking lot set in the flat plateau below the remains of a strip-mined mountain.
"I'd rather have a black friend than a white enemy," he said. State Democratic Party Chairman Nick Casey spoke too. Casey, 57, grew up Irish Catholic in Charleston, and he said the bus was following John F. Kennedy's bus route in the 1960 Democratic primary.
"There's a lot of people out there think you're a bunch of inbred, redneck racists," he told a couple dozen people wearing union hats and jackets. "They say you won't vote for a man who's black."
"The rest of the country thought when Kennedy ran we were a bunch of ignorant, inbred religious bigots," he said. "They were wrong, and we made Kennedy president."
As a local judicial candidate spoke in Logan, two of the politicians wandered off to marvel at the scene taking place behind them. There, a polite, black former Marine, Mitchell Cook, was handing blue Obama
bumper stickers and yard signs to drivers pulling into the mall, and even attaching the bumper stickers himself to some of the pickups and battered two-doors.
"Twenty, thirty years ago, if you had a black man stopping cars, handing out signs right here, he would have been shot," said the State Auditor Glen Gainer. "Now they're stopping, asking him to put on
West Virginia isn't exactly a battleground state. After Obama was shellacked here by Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary - the southern coal counties voted for her by margins as high as eight to one - both his campaign and John McCain's assumed he'd lose it.
And with good reason: West Virginia represents a cross-section of the voters who have been hardest for Obama to reach: It's among the oldest, whitest, and least-educated states in America. It was the place where reporters found white Democrats who freely use the "N" word and swore they'd never vote for Obama.
But maybe the campaigns and the press misread the depth of prejudice in West Virginia, or maybe, since the May primary, something has changed here.
The state is also a historic Democratic stronghold, if one where Democrats sometimes put the words "NRA member" beneath their names on campaign signs. And four recent public polls suggested the
race here has closed from a double-digit McCain lead to a slender one.
The Obama campaign responded last week by buying airtime in Clarksburg, in the center of the state, the sole media market that doesn't already see television ads intended for neighboring Ohio, Virginia, and Pennsylvania.
And in another sign that Obama is taking the state seriously, the campaign's West Virginia spokeswoman, Jenny Rosenberg, confirmed that Senator Joe Biden will hold a rally in the capital, Charleston, Friday.
Obama has "a great chance to win" the state, his campaign manager, David Plouffe, said in a video for donors released Sunday morning.
West Virginia probably won't be counted on to provide Obama his 270th electoral vote. A victory here likely would be the exclamation point on an Obama landslide.
Bill Clinton won here twice; Al Gore lost; and in 2004, John Kerry fought hard here before pulling out and sending local staff to Ohio ten days before the election. He lost by 13 percentage points.
But with the economy in bad shape and McCain lacking the organizaion and enthusiasm that were attached to George W. Bush, Democrats feel race is the final obstacle to Obama's victory.
Obama, they say, is essentially running against himself, and against the cluster of rumors about his religion and politics that Democratic leaders see as another expression of the same thing.
The polls confirm, though, the changes Democrats say they see among their constituents.
"We warm up to people a little slower than most folks do," said Lonnie Harris, the Mingo County Sherriff who, like virtually every other public official in this part of the state, backed Clinton. "She's supporting Barack, and that's helped a lot in overcoming people's fears.
"There's always prejudicial issues in the south, but nothing he can't overcome," said Harris. "In the last thirty days, I saw a big movement to Obama. They're learning about him - that he's a Christian, that he's from a biracial marriage."
Republicans in the state say Obama's problems aren't about his race, but rather his views. And they say that they'll bring the hammer down on him in the final weeks on the social issues--guns, abortion and same-sex marriage--that they say put Obama far to the left of even West Virginia Democrats.
"The politicians don't get to tell people what's important to them," said McCain's state director, Ben Beakes, who said he'd focus in the closing days on Obama's "radical" stance on abortion and guns, though neither campaign has so much as sent mailings to voters, and neither would say if they will.
The Democrats making the case for Obama are attuned to the looming gun issue, and have been working to immunize Obama against it. The candidate for secretary of state, Natalie Tennant, is a former mascot for the locally revered West Virginia University Mountaineers, and she brought her musket.
At the half-dozen outdoor stops, she fired it. "We all have a gun with us but they won't let us shoot it," complained Cecil Roberts at a roadside stop at Alum Creek. "Natalie's the only one who gets to shoot her gun."
Though West Virginia has been far from the front burner, Obama also has a more robust organization here than does McCain. He has 31 staffers in the state. Casey, the Democratic state chairman, alleges McCain has only one, the state director.
"John McCain is confident that ignorant redneck racists are not going to vote for Barack Obama, because Barack Obama is black," said Casey.
Beakes dismissed the charge.
"We know the state has been competitive in the past and we don't want to take it for granted," he said, adding that "contrary to the Democrats' suggestions, I am not the only" staffer.
And while the polls have moved toward Obama, his challenges here are still immense. A poll from West Virginia Wesleyan University last month found that 21 percent of the state's residents identified him as a Muslim. Just over half affirmed that he's Christian.
"I don't think some of the older folks will ever change," said Ellen Todd, an Obama supporter in Beckley who said some of her relatives described Obama with racial slurs.
"Are you ignorant? Are you inbred? Are you racist?" Casey called out to the crowd of about 300 in Beckley, to a chorus of "no." He and the other Democrats asked supporters to talk openly of their support of Obama, and they speculate about a "reverse Bradley effect," saying white Obama supporters aren't always comfortable expressing their support for him openly.
But voters and politicians alike supported the notion, suggested by the polls, that something is happening here. Fifty yards from the Democrats' rally in the parking lot in Logan, a gray-haired woman in a pink "Praise the Lord" sweatshirt was sitting behind the counter at Sue's Bible Books. A flyer from the National Right to Life Committee sat next to the cash register, clearly laying out McCain's oppositin
to abortion rights, and Obama's support. The shopkeeper, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Anna, had voted for Clinton. She said she'd heard the rumors that Obama was a Muslim, and had heard McCain's attacks on his friendly relationship with the former Weather Underground bomber Bill Ayers.
But her pastor had closed the church early Wednesday night so his parishioners could watch the debate.
"I got home from church in time to watch, and I was very impressed with Obama," she said. "He even said that night [of Ayers], 'I was 8 yrs old when I went to that man's house,'" she said, slightly garbling
Obama's response to the attack.
"He swayed me that night," she said.