Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Obama: how he's selling his message to small-town sceptics.

One of the reasons that Barack Obama is able to challenge John McCain is previously considered Republican strongholds is that Obama holds by the rule that, "First, you have to show up".

I read a fascinating article in yesterday's Independent newspaper about how Obama is venturing into places where Democrats rarely dare go and of the reception that he is getting.

Local Democrats told me that Obama's campaign office in the old manufacturing town of Danville was so unusual for a candidate of either party that it's opening was treated almost as a curiosity, as if a smouldering meteor had smashed into the town green.
The article ended with a quote from Mark Warner, the former Governor of Virginia, who stated that Obama should, "celebrate Lebanon", a town in Virginia where Warner pleased the locals by installing broadband and persuading two large hi-tech companies to open facilities there bringing 700 jobs to the small town.

Today Matt Bai covers Obama's most recent visit to Lebanon. And it's not an easy place for a presidential candidate to get to:
If you want to get to Lebanon, a town of about 3,200 inhabitants, the easiest way is to fly into the Tri-City Airport on the Tennessee side of the Appalachians, then drive about 45 minutes north-east through some of the most gorgeous hill country in America.
The fact that Obama is travelling to these tiny communities, deep within opposition territory, tells me that he is deadly serious about challenging McCain below the Mason-Dixon line.

Nor was this Obama's first visit to this small community:
Barack Obama came to Lebanon High for a town-hall meeting with voters on the Tuesday after Labour Day (the first Monday in September), marking the first time that any presidential candidate had stepped foot in the area since Jimmy Carter came to nearby Castlewood in 1976.
One of Obama's greatest mistakes on this campaign was his comment about people "clinging to guns and religion" and in the article I read yesterday Obama insists that he was actually attempting to make the opposite point of the one which people took.

He says that the Democrats have to stop appearing as if they are looking down their noses at people who enjoy hunting and who have the church as the centre of their community, and that the Democrats will never win in these areas until they show that they understand the values of the people who live there.
"I mean, part of what I was trying to say to that group in San Francisco was, 'You guys need to stop thinking that issues like religion or guns are somehow wrong,'" he continued. "Because, in fact, if you've grown up and your dad went out and took you hunting, and that is part of your self-identity and provides you a sense of continuity and stability that is unavailable in your economic life, then that's going to be pretty important, and rightfully so. And if you're watching your community lose population and collapse but your church is still strong and the life of the community is centred around that, well then, you know, we'd better be paying attention to that."

"Number two is how we talk about issues. To act like hunting, like somebody who wants firearms just doesn't get it – that kind of condescension has to be purged from our vocabulary. And that's why that whole 'bittergate' episode was so bitter for me. It was like: Oh, this is exactly what I wanted to avoid. This is what for the last five or six years I've been trying to push away from."

And one can see from the today's reports of his visit to Lebanon that Obama is going out of his way to assure these people that he understands them and their values.

It was only after the speech, prompted by questions from the audience, that Obama tried to reassure the crowd that he was not some San Francisco liberal who pitied rural people for their religiosity and their pastimes. One man wanted to know what Obama thought of those who looked down on Sarah Palin because she was evangelical. No doubt thinking of the persistent rumours still flying around the internet that say he is a closet Muslim, Obama reiterated, for about the seven millionth time this year, that he, too, is a practising Christian. "This is a nation of believers," he said, "and I'm one of them."

A teenage girl asked Obama what he might do specifically for rural America. I found it odd that Obama had to be prompted to address this question, but he warmed to it immediately, ticking off a list of public investments that his administration could bring to the region: broadband lines, school financing, the development of biodiesel fuels. He talked about creating more jobs for local students, "so when they graduate from college those kids can stay here and live in Lebanon instead of having to go and work someplace else".

Having finished that thought, Obama suddenly straightened up, as if something else important had just occurred to him. "One thing I want to make clear while we're on this topic of rural America," he said, looking around the gym. "There are a lot of folks who come up to me and say, 'You know, Barack, I like your economic plan, and I'm tired of George Bush, but you know, I got my NRA mailing, and I'm worried you're gonna take my gun away.' " Obama likes to do this – to momentarily inhabit the mind of some composite character and act out his side of the conversation – and he was met with knowing chuckles.

"I just want to be absolutely clear, OK? I just don't want any misunderstanding when you all go home and you talk with your buddies, and they say, 'Oh, he wants to take my gun away.' You heard it here, and I'm on television, so everybody knows. I believe in the Second Amendment. I believe in people's lawful right to bear arms. I will not take your shotgun away. I will not take your rifle away. I won't take your handgun away.

"So if you want to find an excuse not to vote for me, don't use that one!" Obama said, eliciting a wave of laughter and cheers from the crowd. "It just ain't true!"

The last point about the guns is one that I have heard him make before, so it's obviously important to him as he wants rural America to know that he is not the "elitist" McCain would like to paint him as.

I have no idea whether or not Obama will manage to break the Republican stronghold of the South, but it's clear to me that he is utterly genuine in his desire to do so.

And Obama is certainly doing more than many other presidential candidates simply by sticking to his first rule: "First, you have to show up". McCain was so confident that Virginia was in the bag that he didn't even bother to initially open an office there, but that's all changing.

Now both McCain and Palin are turning up at what was once considered a Republican stronghold. Obama is certainly doing enough to worry them down there.

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