Time: The Limits of Race

Time

The Limits of Race

I followed a cord of suburban and rural communities that connects the urban Democratic strongholds of Kansas City and St. Louis. After stops along the way, I found myself in Lincoln County, driving through a little subdivision of newly minted homes called Ashleigh Estates, looking for voters to interview. A group of young families was gathered on a concrete driveway, next to a pickup truck with a big toolbox in the bed. Lots of kids, ranging from toddlers to preteens, were playing in the slanting evening sunshine, while a couple of the dads sipped after-work beers.

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“I really wanted Hillary,” said Holly Haggard, a purposeful young woman in tan slacks and running shoes. “Well,” her husband Robbie quickly reminded her, “now we got Obama.” He said this in a tone of voice that made me think he wasn’t too happy about the fact.

If this story had been written a few months ago, that exchange might have been the gist of it�white working-class voters left cold by Barack Obama. But then Holly came back with exactly the thing Obama might hope she would say: “Yeah, and we got $3.74 gas too.” For many Americans, the price of gas remains shorthand for a whole world of economic woes.

A recent poll of 1,024 Missouri voters, sponsored by Time and cnn, found that Obama’s standing in the Show-Me State has improved significantly in the past month. A must-win state for John �McCain’s campaign�once considered fairly safe�is now a virtual tie, with the momentum going in Obama’s direction. That’s not something that can be accomplished solely with the support of liberals and minorities�not in Missouri. Here in the borderland between North and South, between East and West, between rich and poor, between city and farm, any would-be President must stay competitive among white voters of modest and middle incomes.

There’s still time to change again, for doubts to resurface, for suspicions to harden. And voters may say one thing to pollsters and do another in the voting booth. Yet at this late stage of the campaign, after dozens of interviews across this toss-up state, evidence suggests that the issue that once seemed as if it would dominate this election — Obama’s race — is not consuming the people who will actually decide.

As I was walking in, a distinguished older woman named Peggy Simpson was rising from one of the chairs, with her white hair immaculately coiffed. “I was leaning toward McCain,” she told me, “until he said the other day that the economy is good.” She was referring to a remark the candidate made as the Wall Street crisis was deepening: “The fundamentals of our economy are still strong.” McCain quickly revised his statement to refer to the diligence and productivity of U.S. workers, but from what I heard in Missouri, the original remark made a lasting impression on voters. Nothing about the economy feels strong to them. “The main issue is the economy,” Simpson continued. “The Republicans always say they are going to lower taxes, but I just don’t see how they can do that anymore. My whole life, they’ve wanted to give more money to the people who already have the fancy, high-paying jobs.” And then, as if to assure me that she wasn’t an Obama�maniac, she added, “I was for Hillary Clinton.”

I wound up spending a long time in the salon, though I didn’t have to ask many questions. Just about everyone seemed to have a strong opinion. It was the sort of place where everyone knows one another in a small-town way, and they all talk and laugh and say outrageous things. Renee Martin, the salon’s owner, told me she and her husband disagree so strongly, they can’t even talk about the election anymore. And that was surprising because at first she was afraid of Obama. “What had me scared,” she explained, “was the whole thing about, Was he a Muslim?”

“A President of the United States should not be named Obama,” chimed in stylist Gina Gilley.

“But he wasn’t even around his father,” Martin replied. And she went on: “Then my sister-in-law and my pastor helped me out. They gave me places to go online to learn the truth.” Her sister-in-law is so committed to Obama that she has volunteered to knock on doors in her apartment complex. “She ran into two old guys who were for McCain, but all the rest were leaning toward Obama.”/

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