INSTITUTE, W.Va. - Race was not on the mind of Michael Whitaker, 18, as he defended Barack Obama during an impassioned conversation in the student union at West Virginia State University.
Whitaker, an African-American majoring in political science, touted Obama's views on health care and taxes. But three white classmates preferred John McCain, and one sarcastically suggested that they were "too white" to come around to Whitaker's point of view.
Whitaker brushed aside the comment. But after the group broke up, he fretted openly that race would affect the outcome of the presidential contest in West Virginia and elsewhere.
"People want someone who closely represents them, and race plays a major role in that," Whitaker said.
With Election Day less than two weeks away, West Virginia offers a case study on the role that race plays in American politics and an intriguing test for the Obama candidacy.
After getting trounced in the West Virginia primary, Obama has made gains in a state in which nearly six in 10 registered voters are Democrats and which has been a part of every Democratic win for nearly a century. Woodrow Wilson in 1912 was the last Democrat to win the White House without gaining West Virginia's electoral votes.
But challenges remain in a state where blacks make up just over 3 percent of the population. West Virginians haven't seen much of the candidate as his campaign has concentrated on other states considered more likely to vote Democratic, and many have yet to warm up to him.
A survey conducted by West Virginia Wesleyan College this week found that race factors into the decision of nearly one in five West Virginia voters.
Some recent polling, however, has shown the Democrat closing the gap, prompting some analysts to label the state a tossup. If Obama is to carry West Virginia next month, it is clear that he needs to sway some voters who are not comfortable with his heritage.
"The argument is, they'll go for McCain because of race," said Robert Rupp, a political scientist at Wesleyan. "But I'd argue it's more than race. They weren't comfortable with [John] Kerry or [Al] Gore, and nobody used the race card then. It was more of, 'That person, I just can't identify with.' "
The discussion, to be sure, extends beyond West Virginia. With the first black nominee on a major party ticket, veteran observers remain uncertain how racial divisions will affect the outcome.
But across the nation, Obama has made unprecedented headway with white voters.
A recent New York Times/CBS poll found that for the first time, white voters are evenly divided between McCain and Obama, and Obama is faring better than his party's recent candidates among that demographic. The last Democrat to win a majority of white voters was Lyndon B. Johnson.
While Rupp points out that West Virginia Democrats are varied, he acknowledges that racist attitudes could influence some votes, particularly in the southern Appalachian portion of the state.
In the Democratic primary, Obama lost all 55 West Virginia counties to Hillary Clinton, his worst showing in the primary season. But the margin of defeat in the counties along the Kentucky and Ohio borders was particularly striking.
In Mingo County, for example, Clinton won 11 votes for each Obama vote.
This is the area where the Hatfields and McCoys famously feuded. The county's most populous town is Williamson, and one recent morning there was a walker parked in front of the barbershop, decorated with red, white and blue streamers and a sticker that read, "Proud to be a WV Democrat." Inside, the men who'd gathered were all Democrats, but none planned to vote for Obama. They wouldn't allow their names to be printed, but they had a long list of reasons:
"He's going to take my gun and then give my money to his own people."
"Been a Democrat my whole life. This is the first time I've voted for a Republican."
"I'd vote for Hillary. But not this one."
"I'm not voting for that n--, and I ain't no racist when I say that either."
In interviews across West Virginia, voters from each party gave varied explanations for Obama's recent climb in the polls.
While the struggling economy has bolstered Obama's numbers in many parts of the country, that may not tell the entire story in West Virginia.
There was never a housing boom here, and therefore no housing bust. In fact, according to a report issued this month by the Rockefeller Institute of Government, West Virginia has led the nation in economic growth since May.
One common explanation centers on the initial reluctance of Clinton supporters to back Obama, which might be thawing.
After Clinton's overwhelming win in the primary, initial surveys suggested that nearly half of her supporters would not support Obama in the general election.