ANSTED, W.Va. (AP) — The campaign signs Gerald Skaggs has strung to his fence and flagpole – “Had Enough? Vote Democrat” – prompt passers-by on U.S. 60 to stop and talk. Sometimes, a bit too much.
After listening to Skaggs argue the merits of Barack Obama's plans for the country, a recent visitor came to a grudging conclusion: “I guess I'll have to vote for that ——.”
Racial slurs have hardly disappeared here. But many voters in this 95 percent white, decidedly working-class state – and presumably, elsewhere in America – are fed up with a lousy economy and current leaders, and Democrats hope they will re-embrace their blue-collar and party roots, swallow any misgivings about race and support a black man for president.
The highway visitor's offhand comment speaks volumes about how bad things have gotten since West Virginia helped elect Republican President Bush in 2000 and 2004.
“He's gonna vote for Obama,” says Skaggs, a 61-year-old Navy veteran and former mechanic. “Because of the issues. Period.”
“People don't have money to buy stuff with. They're having to figure out whether they're going to eat or pay their rent,” Skaggs says. “We can't stand that. What if we get another four years like that?”
National polls showed Democrat Obama and Republican John McCain in a close race until the crisis began in September; then Obama opened up a lead in most surveys. Still, polling
shows McCain continuing to lead in West Virginia.
Race remains an issue as the contest plays out house by house.
An AP-Yahoo survey in September showed that one-third of white Democrats in the U.S. agree with at least one negative adjective when applied to blacks, and they're less likely to vote for Obama than those who don't feel that way.
But AP polling shows Obama is slowly pulling in former supporters of Hillary Rodham Clinton, who trounced him in West Virginia's Democratic primary by more than 2-to-1.
The party and major unions have been trying to smooth the way for him.
State Democratic vice chair Belinda Biafore says she persuaded one elderly woman at a Wal-Mart to support Obama by feigning ignorance that he was black and claiming she'd only heard him on the radio.
“ ‘And all I hear is him saying 'I'm going to help you with health care and taxes and all those things that Hillary talked about,’ ” she told the woman. “ ‘Really? He's black? I'm going to go home and turn the TV on!’
“She said, ‘You know, you make a good point.’ ”
In the primary, Biafore said, it was about picking the party's face. Now, “it's more about the issues and going back to the values we were raised with.”
Obama has taken his slight surge seriously enough to sink advertising money into West Virginia, and he sent running mate Joe Biden to Charleston last Friday. But he has not set foot in the state since a pre-primary visit to Charleston in May.
Ansted, a coal-country town of about 1,500, is a place where blacks and whites mingle on the streets, chat together on the porch of the local convenience store and generally live in harmony _ but their homes tend to be in separate parts of town.
Not everyone is ready to put race aside, says heating contractor Steve Legg, a 55-year-old independent who expects Obama to lose.
“I hate to say it,” he admits, “but most of it's just prejudice.”
Sure, union campaigns by teachers, miners and steelworkers might be helping Obama.
“But when a man goes in there and gets ready to pull the ticket,” he says, “he's gonna vote his heart.”
A record 1.2 million West Virginians are registered to vote, and as usual, Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2-to-1. But the number of independent and third-party voters has grown faster than those of both major parties combined. They now account for 15 percent of all people registered.
To West Virginians, the decision isn't just about race and the economy. There are concerns about religion, patriotism and veterans' care, gun control, taxes and support for organized labor.
“I'm really mixed up as to who to vote for,” says Roberto DeLeon, a Masontown barber who boasts the cheapest haircuts in Preston County, just $6 for seniors.
“I am a Republican and I would vote for McCain,” DeLeon says. “However, I'm also a veteran … and from what I understand, Obama has supported the veterans a lot more than McCain has. But Obama is against gun ownership. The NRA does not endorse Obama. And I'm a hunter. I have guns. So I'm kind of split there.”
And what do his customers say?
“The majority of them are going to vote for Obama, from what I hear,” he says.
People lost confidence in McCain when he chose Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, despite an apparent lack of knowledge about world politics and economics, he says.
“But on the other hand,” DeLeon says with a laugh, “she's a hunter.”
At his grocery store 130 miles south in Rosedale, 38-year-old Brian James hears a lot of talk, too. Most favors Obama.
“They're tired of Republicans, is what I'm hearing,” he says. “They're just ready to get out from under the Republican Party and let the Democrats do another chance. … Even people that don't like either one seem to be pushing more toward Obama.”
AP Director of Surveys Trevor Tompson in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.
AP Photo by VICKI SMITH. Obama supporters Gerald and Angie Skaggs stand outside their home in Ansted, W.Va., Friday, Oct. 17. Fed up with a lousy economy and Republican leadership, many voters here – and, presumably, elsewhere in America – may re-embrace their blue-collar and historically Democratic roots, swallow any misgivings about race, and support a black man for president.