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Turning a mountain into a molehill

Barack Obama made one of his first major tactical errors of the campaign by ignoring West Virginia's largely working-class, rural voters.
Barack Obama Campaigns Across U.S. Ahead Of Primaries
May 12: Sen. Barack Obama plays a game of pool during a stop at Schultzie's Bar & Hot Spot in Springhill, West Virginia. This was one of only two trips to the state this year.Mark Wilson / Getty Images
/ Source: National Journal

At the same time he was locking it up this week, Barack Obama was making one of his first big tactical mistakes of the fall campaign. He ignored West Virginia and consequently suffered, as George W. Bush would say, a thumpin'. And it’ll take more than John Edwards’ last-minute endorsement to fix it.

It’s not about the state’s 28 delegates. It’s about its five electoral votes, and the 100-plus others that could be affected this fall.

Make no mistake, Obama ignored West Virginia. He ventured there just twice this year and spent hardly a cent in the state. And while his flag pin may have soothed concerns about his patriotism and his corner shot may have dazzled them at Schultzie’s Billiards, he spent little time introducing himself to those (say it with me now) working-class white voters in a rural state that seemed tailor-made for Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Voters noticed Obama’s attempts to turn the Mountain State into a molehill. To wit, 50 percent of voters told exit pollsters on Tuesday that they think Obama still shares the views of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, even though he publicly rejected Wright earlier this month. One in five voters admitted that race played a role in their decision, and of those, more than four out of five said they voted for Clinton. More than half said Obama doesn’t “share their values.” He even lost among Obamaniacs: twenty-somethings, college graduates and affluent voters. He’s come a long way from Iowa — or some voters have, and not necessarily in the way he’d prefer.

Comparisons to Clinton’s earlier snubbing of states with large numbers of black voters (South Carolina and Mississippi) are off-base, given the different stage of the Democratic campaign today. Obama does need to begin to focus more intently on John McCain. But as he held a town-hall meeting Tuesday in a conservative enclave of Missouri (it was actually Rush Limbaugh’s hometown), cable news talkers were raising new questions about the Democrat’s chances this fall.

Still, why should Obama care about West Virginia, when he could put Ohio, Virginia, Georgia and Missouri into play? Because the voters in every one of those states and others share more than a few similarities with those in West Virginia, including education levels, household income, religion, geography and, yes, race. (West Virginia also may hold some magical powers itself; as Clinton herself pointed out Tuesday, no Democrat has won the White House since 1916 without winning there).

“If you look at working-class whites, there are a lot in Virginia,” Bill Richardson, an Obama supporter, said Tuesday night on CNN.

Richardson is monitoring this dynamic closely, because it could affect his own political fate this year. Indeed, the pressure to court white voters, justified or not, could push Obama to set as a high priority his running mate’s ties to such groups. That would improve the prospects of someone like Evan Bayh of Indiana or Jim Webb of Virginia, while hurting Richardson or, say, Michael Bloomberg.

On the other hand, should Obama even care about making tactical mistakes when McCain’s conservative base is disappearing before his eyes? While Obama was going down Tuesday, Democrat Travis Childers helped his party complete its trend-setting trifecta of upset wins in special elections in ruby-red, GOP-held House districts. So, despite boatloads of polling that shows McCain is competitive this fall, the fact remains that when Republicans vote these days, they’re often voting for Democrats.

In Childers’ case, it wasn’t even close. A last-minute visit from Vice President Dick Cheney couldn’t even rescue Republican Greg Davis. In fact, local insiders say, it might even have hurt.

Indeed, while Democrats publicly worry that the drawn-out primary has drawn down their chances this fall, Childers’ victory is yet another reason that party leaders’ private confidence continues to soar. That explains their willingness to abandon Clinton, whose lonely presence on stage Tuesday night in West Virginia spoke volumes about the state of the race. Unlike during previous victory speeches, even in states she won more narrowly, Clinton wasn’t joined on stage Tuesday by governors, senators or other local figures. Despite her more than 2-1 victory in their state, those superdelegates stayed neutral or, as is the case with Sen. Jay Rockefeller and Rep. Nick Rahall, are backing Obama.

How soon will it be before Clinton joins that team?