Sunday, October 28, 2007

Newsweek pundit predicts rural roots will again influence the election of a president

Howard Fineman, chief political correspondent for Newsweek, right, asks: "Do we still have this thing for small-town rural America when we choose our presidents?" He thinks the answer is yes, after two-term presidencies of "the man from Hope" and the current occupant, who cast himself "as a product of the Texas oil-patch town of Midland," as Fineman notes.

Fineman sees "a fault line" running through this year's field, between metro-bred-and-based Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Rudy Guliani and Mitt Romney to ruralites John Edwards, Fred Thompson and Mike Huckabee (another man from Hope, Ark.). "Edwards and Thompson have traveled far from their roots but still define themselves by them. Huckabee, so far, hasn't strayed very far from Little Rock," Fineman writes, then predicts: "It seems to me that one or more of these three is going to make a move at some point — if for no other reason than someone of their ilk always has. It's in our history."

Jimmy Carter of Plains, Ga., comes to mind, but Fineman says Ronald Regan "was more Dixon, Ill., than anywhere else" and Richard Nixon's resentment — of urban elites, we think Fineman means — developed in then-rural Whittier, Calif. And why does increasingly urban America still look for presidents with rural roots? "We seem to regard that kind of background as somehow more likely to produce honest people," Fineman opines. "Americans have an ingrained suspicion of the Powers That Be, and, as a result, we may think that someone from outside the big-league centers is more likely to tame the beast of unaccountable power."

And, of course, there is the nominating process, which is dominated (at least early on) by states with signiifcant rural populations — Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. If Edwards wins the Iowa caucuses, "it will be due to the support he has kept in rural western Iowa," Fineman writes. "Huckabee is working the same terrain," and he is gaining ground in Iowa, by all accounts. He "received the only genuine standing ovation" when he, Thompson and lesser candidates spoke to the state party dinner Saturday night, Jay Wagner reports in the Iowa Independent.

Fineman takes note of Edwards' chief rural strategist, Mudcat Sanders, who "lives up to his name. Mudcat has a farmer's tan, a hangdog visage and a gravelly, bourbon-soaked drawl. He looks and talks like a guy you might meet on the loading dock of a Southern States Co-op, tossing bags of feed into his pickup. His message is simple, and he has spent most of his career selling it. The whole political class, he says, but especially the Democrats, underestimate the stories, needs and votes of rural, small-town folk and their 'exurban' kin, who live on the periphery of metropolitan areas but who look out to the countryside rather than in to the cities." (Photo of Sanders by Sam Dean, The Roanoke Times)

Rural voters were key to electing President Bush, but rural communities are bearing a disproportionate share of casualties in Iraq, and recent polling has indicated that makes them less likely to vote Republican next year. That could make a big difference. "Though the cities are where all the money is, rural America is where some pivotal votes are — and where, at least if you read the history, America's heart has been," Fineman concludes. (Read more)

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