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In S.D., McCain Courts The Bikers

Sturgis, S.D. - Every summer, nearly half a million motorcyclists descend on Sturgis, an otherwise sleepy town in South Dakota, for a nine-day celebration of all things Harley.

This year, the bikers, strippers, and rockers were joined by a most unlikely guest: the Republican nominee for president, John McCain.

McCain's appearance before a veteran-heavy audience of several thousand bikers gathered at the Buffalo Chip Campground on Monday night was unlike any other campaign event to date—some sported signs like “Show UR [breasts] for McCain."

“Don’t let November 4 find you on the open road,” McCain told the audience over the whir of engines and smell of diesel fumes. “I’m counting on you to show up.”

In theory, the Sturgis crowd should be an easy sell for McCain. Bikers, a fiercely patriotic and independent-minded group, could easily be expected to embrace McCain’s maverick image and military background.

Cliff Leach, a National Guard veteran, summarized the biker world view when he introduced McCain.

“We believe in a beautiful America. A land of beautiful roads, a land of beautiful bikes, ice-cold beers and a land of beautiful women,” he told the crowd. “And that’s the best hoo-ah a man can get.”

The engines roared, but as the biker’s cheer died away, several admitted they were still skeptical.

“I rode here with 12 people,” said Bruce Wenger, a Obama supporter from Wisconsin. “We did a poll on the way in and were split down the middle.”

Like most of America, two issues weighed heavily on the Sturgis crowd: the war in Iraq and gas prices.

“All we did was turn Iraq into a mess,” said Wenger. “And now we have Americans dying.”

On the stump, McCain decried four dollar a gallon gas, saying he would expand domestic oil exploration. On Iraq, he delivered his standard message against a set timeline for withdrawal.

Those solutions didn’t convince Wenger.

“We need a commander in chief who will win the war in Iraq but will win it the right way,” he said. “I want us to come home with victory and honor.”

But it wasn’t just the crowd that McCain hoped to win over at Sturgis. The appearance gave him some much needed local media coverage in the Great Plains states, typically blood red states that appear vulnerable for McCain.

In South Dakota, McCain leads Obama by just four percentage points, according to mid-July polling by Rasmussen.

In neighboring North Dakota, one of several traditionally Republican states being targeted by Democrats, the Obama campaign has opened up four offices and Obama has visited at least twice since wrapping up the nomination.

The effort appears to be paying off. McCain and Obama are tied at 43 percent in North Dakota, according to the latest Rasmussen poll. In 2004, George W. Bush carried the state by twenty-eight points.

And in Montana, the latest polling shows the two candidates in a dead heat at 47 percent.

Those margins could spell trouble for McCain in November, but it didn’t seem to worry him in Sturgis.

“My friends, I know it will be a good sign on Election Day if there are lot of bikes parked outside the polling places of America,” he said to the bikers.