The fight goes on in `Hillary country'

W.Va. may show Obama weakness

May 12, 2008|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,Sun reporter

ROMNEY, West Va. -- Bill Arnold's life-sized likeness of Barack Obama gets no respect.

Friends vandalized the cardboard cutout at a meeting in this small eastern panhandle city, plastering the face with a picture of Hillary Clinton. His mother, embarrassed to have the prop in her house, flipped it upside down so neighbors walking past her window wouldn't recognize it.

"This is Hillary country," explained Arnold, a 58-year-old retired behavior disorder teacher, as he carried the figure into the Obama campaign headquarters here where it would be sheltered from further abuse.

Obama is expected to lose the state by a wide margin, as he did in neighboring Pennsylvania and Ohio, when votes are tallied here tomorrow. But that isn't dampening the enthusiasm of supporters, emboldened by the senator's success last week.

"We are all pretty inspired. We're highly motivated," said Frankie Biega, a 28-year-old science teacher at Martinsburg High School who has knocked on doors daily for the past two weeks.

Even if the West Virginia primary goes as expected -- a recent poll shows that Clinton could win the state by more than 20 percentage points -- the results will barely affect the Democratic nominating contest, which appears nearly over.

Clinton might try to claim momentum, and discussion over Obama's lack of support among white, working-class voters could swell. But Clinton's win of a majority of the state's 28 pledged delegates wouldn't significantly cut into Obama's delegate advantage.

Obama acknowledged last week that Clinton had an "insurmountable lead" in West Virginia and neighboring Kentucky, but he has done little to secure a different result -- further evidence that the Democratic contest has moved to its next stage.

Yet West Virginia's results could magnify Obama's weaknesses.

The Illinois senator runs strongly among young voters, but the proportion of West Virginia's population older than 65 is second-highest in the nation, trailing only Florida. It's the fifth-poorest state, and 95 percent of its residents are white, the fourth-highest percentage in the country, according to the Census. White voters and lower-income voters have been among Clinton's most loyal constituencies.

There are nearly twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans here, and the state's two U.S. senators and its governor are Democrats. But West Virginia has twice delivered its five electoral votes to George W. Bush. Gun rights and religion are major issues, providing fertile ground for Republican presidential candidates.

Clinton communications director Howard Wolfson yesterday called West Virginia a "key swing state" in the general election, and said on Fox News Sunday that Obama's likely loss would exacerbate questions about his electability. Clinton spent Mother's Day stumping for votes in West Virginia, the only candidate on the trail yesterday.

Jim Kidwell, 48, a steelworker from Romney, plans to vote for Clinton tomorrow. He's worried about the economy and gas prices, and thinks Clinton's prescriptions are better.

"She's got more experience," he said.

If Obama wins the nomination, Kidwell plans to vote for Republican John McCain in the general election. Obama comes across as too smug, Kidwell said. The controversy over his former pastor is another problem, he added.

Volunteers here have tweaked their message after Obama's overwhelming victory in North Carolina and narrow loss in Indiana put him within reach of the nomination. As talk of a Clinton exit strategy accelerates, they're gently encouraging her many supporters to think ahead to the fall election as they work to keep her victory margin as small as possible.

"Everything you do has a benefit for November," acknowledged Thomas Bowen, Obama's West Virginia spokesman. Still, Bowen insisted, "the focus is on Tuesday."

Lisa Polk, a public defender from Northampton, Mass., who was volunteering in West Virginia over the weekend, said she softened her message as she encountered Clinton supporters while knocking on doors.

No longer was Polk trying to critique the New York senator. "People don't want to hear that," she said. Instead, she delivered a more gentle message to those who answered the door: "I hope you vote for him in the fall."

While Hillary and Bill Clinton have hopped from one West Virginia town to another in recent days, Obama left the campaign trail last week, then headed to Oregon, a state he is favored to carry when it votes in eight days.

But his campaign did not abandon West Virginia. Three television commercials were in rotation here, including one about getting energy from coal -- an important industry in the state. Surrogates were dispatched, including Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore and Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, who were both in West Virginia yesterday.

Obama has scheduled a rally at the state capital, Charleston, this morning.

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