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Dems Court Rural Ohio Voters

Appalachian Ohio, a rural region struggling with high unemployment and where residents often feel they are ignored by people living in the rest of the state, will get plenty of attention from presidential campaigns this week.

Former president Bill Clinton scheduled a daylong swing through the region Monday on behalf of his wife, whose campaign for the Democratic nomination is looking for crucial victories in the March 4 primaries in Ohio and Texas.

Hillary Rodham Clinton also planned appearances in the region, home to 1.5 million people scattered over the southern and eastern parts of the state, later in the week.

Although the region traditionally leans Republican, Democrats have made inroads in recent elections, giving the party hope that it can continue to pick up votes outside of Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati and other urban areas.

Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat who grew up grew in the Appalachian region, said voters there may determine the outcome of the state's Democratic primary.

"I think the people in Appalachia support people who they think pay attention to them ... who have a genuine empathy for their circumstances," said Strickland, who endorsed Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama months ago. "People of Appalachia are common sense kind of folk; I think they're less likely to get caught up in the euphoria and excitement that has surrounded Senator Obama."

Clinton's emphasis on working-class issues such as health care coverage and her history of interest in the region will attract support, Strickland said.

Obama doesn't have a publicly scheduled appearance in the region, but his campaign says he considers it important and has had surrogates working there, including former Bill Clinton campaign manager David Wilhelm, another Appalachian native.

Former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig and other members of Obama's foreign policy team planned a town hall meeting Monday in Athens.

Obama has shown increasing strength among voters similar to those who dominate the Appalachian region. In the Wisconsin primary last week, exit polls showed Obama running evenly with Clinton among lower-income, lower-education whites and drawing heavy support from white men without college degrees.

Wilhelm, who has worked to provide venture capital for business investment in the region, said he was impressed by Obama's plans for rural development, including attracting investment, rebuilding small-town infrastructure and promoting sustainable agriculture.

"His potential to be a coalition builder, who can actually bring change about for things that really matter, should impress Appalachian Ohio," Wilhelm said.

In Peeples, about 60 miles east of Cincinnati, residents said they were following the race closely.

Sharon Hamilton, a working mother of four children, said she's seen previous campaign visits to the region by Bill Clinton and by both presidents Bush and wasn't too impressed.

"They come to town and they have all these nice vehicles taking them places," she said. "They could take all the money they're spending on that and help these poor people pay for their prescriptions."

Here in Adams County, unemployment is near 8 percent, and the per capita income of $22,000 is $10,000 below the state average.

Sitting at a diner in nearby Seaman, Judy Alexander said she's backing Clinton.

"I think it's great that she has come forward," Alexander said. "It would be nice to see a lady get in there. I think she could straighten you men out."

Jenny Fenton, a farmer, planned to vote for Obama.

"Just the fact that she's (Clinton) a woman doesn't mean much to me," she said. "He's young, he has energy, he has public appeal. I like the way his ads come across."

Michael McTeague, a political analyst and historian at Ohio University, said the region's voters are traditionalists, and some will have issues with a black candidate and others with a female.

"It's probably breaking new ground for everyone," McTeague said.

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