Saturday, November 03, 2007

Coal and land firms, government highway builders sign deal for another piece of King Coal Highway

Coal and land companies signed an agreement with federal and state officials this week for construction of another five miles of the King Coal Highway, planned to connect Interstates 64 and 77 through the heart of West Virginia coal-mining country. The road and the intersecting Coalfields Expressway, which would run through Virginia and West Virginia, are to be built in conjunction with surface coal mining, with reclamation preparing a route for the roads.

West Virginia Transportation Secretary Paul Mattox said at the signing in Williamson that the deal with Consol Energy and Cotiga Development Co. would save taxpayers $110 million on the section in Mingo County. "Typical drain and grade projects in southern West Virginia may cost as much as $25 million per mile," he said. For an earlier Rural Blog item on the concept, click here.

Kyle Lovern of The Boone Standard reports that the deal "calls for Consol Energy to develop a long-range plan for its Millers Creek operation, which calls for mining to continue in the Belo and Delbarton areas of Mingo County. Part of that plan was identified as the Buffalo Mountain Surface Mine project, which after the coal is extracted, the company will construct the land to rough grade, a section of what will become the King Coal Highway." (Read more)

PBS story on growing local, eating local left out points about tobacco in Appalachia

The PBS weekly magazine program "Now" did a long story last night on Appalachian Sustainable Development of Abingdon, Va., and its efforts to get tobacco growers to raise organic vegetables in southwest Virginia, northeast Tennessee and northwestern North Carolina. "We're trying to create more social equity, with environmental conservation, and at the same time make money," said ASD's Anthony Flaccavento.

The story captured the effort well, but may have created some misperceptions about tobacco in Appalachia. It noted the 2004 repeal of the federal tobacco program, but referred only to its price supports, not the quotas that limited each farm's production. Now that the quotas are gone, some farmers are raising more tobacco, and though cigarette companies pay them less, they make up for it in volume and no longer having to pay to lease other landowners' quotas. None of that was mentioned as farmer Allyn Horton said, "The prices we're takin' for tobacco now are prices my granddaddy got 30, 40 years ago."

Correspondent David Brancaccio intoned, "The economics of tobacco are generally dismal around here these days." Not if you can get land. While Horton and other farmers may not be able to do that, it's easier in the Ridge and Valley section of Appalachia, where they live, than in the Cumberland Plateau and Highland Rim regions of Appalachia to the west, in Kentucky and Tennessee. There was evidence of that later in the piece, which reported that Horton had cut back his tobacco production to 25 acres from 40. Such big tracts are rare in the regions to the west, where small farmers have been hit harder by the repeal of the program.

Aside from its tobacco slip-ups, the story is worth watching as a lesson in how culture and agriculture can change and how the "local food" movement can take root. "I think people are completely ignorant of where a lot of their food comes from," organic farmer Steve Hopp said. Hopp and his wife, novelist Barbara Kingsolver, and their daughter Camille Kingsolver recently published Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a book about the family's recent year in which they ate only what they raised themselves or bought from local producers. To watch the report, click here. For the interview with Flaccavento, click here.

Tupelo paper asks the right question(s) of legislative candidates in Mississippi's election

The Mississippi Legislature is an unusual one, because it has a somewhat nonpartisan character. Members run as Democrats, Republicans or independents, but don't hold party caucuses. That may change after Tuesday's election, because heavily favored Gov. Haley Barbour and his state GOP are spending big to elect Republicans to legislative seats and a Democratic lawmaker is trying to form a coalition of Republicans and a few Democrats to unseat the Democratic speaker of the House.

With the powerful speaker's chair up for grabs, many voters want to know how candidates would vote if elected to the House, and the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo is asking the question of candidates in the 16-county area it covers. That's the first time Marty Wiseman, director of the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University, can recall such a question being asked of legislative candidates, reports Tom Baxter of Southern Political Report.

The Daily Journal, whose circulation of 35,000 makes it the largest U.S. paper based outside a metropolitan area, has a reporter in the state capital of Jackson, Bobby Harrison. He reported recently that no members of the Legislative Black Caucus would support Rep. Jeff Smith, D-Columbus, who is trying to unseat Speaker Billy McCoy, a Democrat from Rienzi in northeast Mississippi. The Republican Caucus had already voted likewise, but the election of new legislators could turn the tide.

With the speaker running in the Daily Journal's coverage area, Lena Mitchell of the paper's Coirinth bureau reported this week on McCoy's race for re-election to his House seat. "The House speaker appoints the committee chairman and sets the agenda for House business," she explained, adding that Smith "has support among legislators who favor a more conservative leader."

Friday, November 02, 2007

Kentucky's public-private partnership for rural broadband is becoming a national model

Congress likes Kentucky's public-private partnership approach to rural broadband so much that it is moving legislation to provide grants to follow the state's lead, reports The Wall Street Journal.

ConnectKentucky, the non-for-profit that runs the partnership, says broadband is available to 95 percent of Kentuckians. It uses "detailed research on communications networks, targeted public spending and cooperation with private-sector providers of broadband," Corey Boles writes. "44 percent of the state's population, much of it rural, subscribes to broadband services, up from 22 percent three years ago. The program has grown into a national not-for-profit group called Connected Nation."

Measuring the availability and reach of broadband is difficult because of the way the Federal Communications Commission measures it, so a House committee has passed a bill to force the FCC "to pinpoint where broadband service is available and where it isn't," Roberts writes. The FCC told him it is already moving on that front.

Rep. Zack Space of Ohio, who filed the bill to make grants, "has formed the Connecting Appalachia Broadband Task Force, a group of various officials, local leaders and telecom industry representatives to bring broadband to rural Appalachia," the Journal reports. "Space worries that the U.S. hasn't kept pace with other developed countries, and that rural districts like his will lose jobs." (Read more, subscription required) The Economist and The Rural Blog reported in September that Kentucky was becoming a national model. To read that item, click here.

Meanwhile, "The administrator of a federal loan program that supports the rollout of high-speed Internet access to rural areas told Congress that the effort is flawed and needs to be overhauled," reports David Hatch of National Journal's Technology Daily. (Read more)

Higher postal rates have made weekly newspapers weaker, chain executive testifies

Most weekly newspapers make heavy use of the mail, so they fought hard against recent increases in postal rates and other regulations that make them pay more. Now their publishers are feeling the impact in their newsrooms, and are beginning to sell their papers, Max Heath, a vice president of Landmark Community Newspapers Inc., testified this week before the House subcommittee that oversees the U.S. Postal Service.

The National Newspaper Association, the weeklies' lobby, reports, "Heath told Subcommittee Chairman Danny Davis, D-Ill., and members of the subcommittee that NNA's surveys of members indicated that most are trying to absorb the increase. But he provided the story of a Missouri husband-and-wife publishing team, owners of the Vandalia Leader, who sold their paper this year, citing poor postal service and rising costs as one reason they were giving up. Postal rates to readers within a newspaper's publication county rose 20-25 percent, Heath said, and were based upon Postal Service costing data that NNA considered flawed."

NNA says, "The increased postal costs will cut into newsroom budgets and cause higher subscription prices for readers at a time when newspapers are trying to retain readers." The Subcommittee on Federal Workforce, Postal Service and the District of Columbia titled its hearing, "Will Increased Postal Rates Put Mailers Out of Business?" Health testified that the increase "has weakened (newspapers). Without your continued vigilance and the support of the Postal Service and the Postal Regulatory Commission, the next time you ask the question, we may not be here to answer." (Read more)

House votes to revise Mining Law of 1872, require royalties, protect the environment

The U.S. House voted yesterday to make major changes in the Mining Law of 1872, "adding protections for the environment and, for the first time, requiring miners to pay royalties for the gold, silver, copper, uranium and other minerals they extract from public lands," reports Richard Simon of the Los Angeles Times.

"The White House has threatened to veto the bill but also signaled willingness to negotiate," Simon writes. "Driven by worries that mines are damaging the environment and complaints that private companies are shortchanging the government, the decades-old efforts to overhaul the law signed by Ulysses S. Grant have their best prospects in years for success." The last major attempts at reform were made in 1970 and 1994.

Key to the bill's future in the Senate is Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, "a gold miner's son from the biggest gold-mining state. He opposes a royalty on operators of existing hard-rock mines but has hinted he might allow royalties on new operations as a way to compromise on a priority of environmental groups, an important Democratic constituency," the Times reports. Environmentalists supporting the bill are opposed by such lobbies as the National Mining Association, which argues that it calls for "the highest royalty in the world" and would discourage domestic mining, making the U.S. more dependent on imports "for minerals critical to manufacturing," Simon writes.

Proposal to renew and revise No Child Left Behind faces challenges from both parties, likely delay

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which has posed challenges for many rural schools, was supposed to be renewed in 2006, and after Democrats took control of Congress, they promised to rewrite it this year. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who is the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, is trying to do just that, but his task is not easy, writes Nicole Gaouette of the Los Angeles Times.

She reports that his proposed changes to the bill — which include expanding measurements of student performance to subjects beyond English and math — are drawing criticism from both Republicans and Democrats. "Miller is sparring with Republicans who see his proposed changes as an unacceptable watering down of the law's core standards," she writes. "Teachers object to his proposal to link pay to performance. Even his fellow Democrats -- particularly freshmen who campaigned against it and members of the Congressional Black Caucus -- are giving him a hard time, largely for not doing enough to soften the law's most rigid requirements."

Miller drafted more than 1,000 pages of proposed changes with Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., but as he "has tweaked that proposal to appeal to Democrats and teachers, he has lost Republicans." But Miller has hope that a compromise can be reached to pass the House. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., plans to start the Senate's formal discussions on No Child Left Behind in the coming weeks. (Read more)

However, "It’s looking increasingly likely that Congress won’t make much progress in addressing the law’s flaws this year, endangering the prospects that the task will be completed before President Bush leaves office," reports David Hoff of Education Week, who quotes Miller spokesman Tom Kiley: “It is unlikely that we will be able to get a bill off the House floor this year.” (Read more; subscription may be required)

House panel approves increased safety measures for coal mines

The Democratic-controlled House Education and Labor Committee voted along party lines, 26-18, to approve the Supplementary Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act, or S-MINER, a follow-up to last year's MINER Act, reports Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette. Introduced by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the new legislation "would speed up deadlines for several mine rescue requirements passed by Congress last year after the Sago Mine disaster," Ward wrote.

The bill drew criticism from U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration chief Richard Stickler who released a statement that said the bill "would cause serious administrative problems for MSHA." The National Mining Association, the lobby of coal companies, also released a statement which said the bill “is far more likely to impede rather than improve our ongoing efforts to enhance mine safety."

The bill's provisions include: requiring operators to submit plans for installing better underground communications within 120 days, forcing MSHA write regulations mandatin rescue chambers or shelters by June 2008, generally outlawing conveyor belt tunnels that bring fresh air underground and commissioning studies about retreat mining, the practice used Crandall Canyon Mine in Utah. (Read more)

Rep. Bob Bishop, R-Utah, voted against the measure and told the Deseret Morning News the legislation comes too soon after the original MINER Act. "Bishop said the original MINER Act, passed 2006 in wake of the Sago Mine disaster, needs time to be fully implemented before Congress should act to change it," writes Suzanne Struglinski from Washington, D.C. "He said some of the provisions in Miller's bill are already in place, and some of the bill's proposed new safety rules could harm Utah's mining industry."

The new bill would add a full-time position at MSHA for communicating with miners' families and the media after an accident, but Bishop said such a measure was "superfluous." The MINER Act did call for increased communication, but the way Crandall Canyon Mine owner Bob Murray handled the briefings this summer led Miller to seek a full-time position. (Read more)

Rural editor, urban columnist say anonymity allows intimidated rural residents to speak out

In small towns, writing a controversial letter to the editor can be a recipe for disaster — because everyone knows the face that goes with the author's name when it's published. That's why some community newspapers break from standard journalistic practice and allow anonymous letters, so people are not afraid to say what they really think, writes Connie Schultz in a column in today's edition of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

She highlights The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky. (located on Encarta map), which has a feature called "Speak Your Piece" for residents to have their say — anonymously. The comments sometimes take up two full pages of the broadsheet paper in the heart of the Central Appalachian coalfield.

"We live in a rural county," Eagle Editor Ben Gish told Schultz. "Politics can be rough here, and some politicians give letter-writers a hard time. In the early 1970s, police beat up the kids of parents who wrote letters criticizing police brutality. Or someone wrote a letter criticizing the coal industry or a politician and their family members would lose their jobs." (Gish and Schulz didn't mention this, but also in the 1970s, the Eagle's office was firebombed and a Whitesburg policeman was found responsible.)

Schultz also quotes Bill Reader, an Ohio University journalism professor who led the editorial page of the Centre Daily Times in State College, Pa., in the late 1990s. She said he helped her come to the realization that anonymous letters can play a big part in community journalism. More than anything, the option to remain anonymous would inspire more people to write letters, Schultz writes. "One national survey found that 35 percent of those who have never sent a letter to the editor would if they didn't have to identify themselves. Whose voices are being silenced by our insistence that regular citizens meet the same standard as those of us paid to give our opinion?"

Reader says writers who want anonymity should be considered on a case-by-case basis: "Judge the letter on its merits. Is it a novel opinion? Is it well-articulated? If we give the space to readers, they'll see the newspaper is the place to go to air ideas." (Read more)

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Study finds that prosperous rural counties aren't always the ones that are growing

It's common to connect growth with prosperity in rural counties, but a study suggests that prosperity is about more than growth. Andrew Isserman, an economist at the University of Illinois, thought income and population rates weren't the best measures for successful counties, so he found others ways to chart prosperity, reports the Daily Yonder.

"Prosperous counties, according to Isserman, graduate their kids from high school," writes Bill Bishop. "People work in prosperous counties, and unemployment rates are low. There’s less poverty in prosperous counties, and the housing people live in is both affordable and in good repair." Isserman used four measures for his test of prosperity: "low drop-out rates; lots of jobs; low poverty rates; good and affordable housing," Bishop explains. The map above shows how individual counties scored on the scale.

While access to highways or airports mattered little for prosperous counties, jobs and education were important. In the 400 non-metropolitan counties that scored better on the scale than the nation as a whole, there were more private-sector jobs, more family farms and higher graduation rates. The Great Plains had the most prosperous counties. Click here to read more from the Yonder) To read Isserman's full report, go here.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Tyson Foods, Arkansas groups form lobby to oppose state and local laws targeting immigrants

Churches, civic groups and businesses in Arkansas, including Tyson Foods, have formed the Arkansas Friendship Coalition to lobby on behalf of immigrants in the state, reports, a news service for the meat industry. The group opposes local and state laws aimed at curtailing immigration, saying it is a federal issue, Tom Johnston writes.

In a statement on its Web site, the group says it hopes to "encourage a reasonable and respectful approach to the immigration debate in Arkansas." That statement also cites the Urban Institute report "A Profile of Immigrants in Arkansas, April 2007," which said that immigrants added $3 billion to the Arkansas economy in 2004.

The AFC said it "will be speaking to elected officials on behalf of immigrants; offering a speaker’s bureau; and, engaging in public advocacy." (Read more)

'Big Box Evaluator' lets communities examine potential effects of giant retailers

When it comes to shopping in America, "big box" stores dominate the market and the landscape. The term comes from the fact that these superstores (such as Costco, Target and Wal-Mart) are large, windowless structures that occupy anywhere from 50,000 to 200,000 square feet. These one-stop shops can change towns for better or worse, and a new (and free) online tool from the Orton Family Foundation attempts to help communities learn what might happen when one moves in. Called the Big Box Evaluator, it lets a user enter information about a community to see what effects the store could have. The site breaks those down into four categories: economy, environment, society and visual.

The foundation says that while the stores can offer lower prices, more jobs and tax revenue, they can also hurt local merchants and create traffic problems. The foundation says it is not trying to take sides: "This site is intended to help you think about and analyze the big picture: facts as well as judgments; statistics as well as feelings. Our hope is that it will help you feel confident and informed when you make your own decisions about big box retail in your community." (Read more)

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

No Child Left Behind? In Mississippi and other poor, rural areas, whole schools are left behind

As Congress debates changes to the No Child Left Behind Act, Peter Whoriskey of The Washington Post reports from rural northwest Mississippi that whole schools are still getting left behind.

The Post looked at scores on reading and math tests, and went to the lowest-ranking school in the lowest-ranking state: Como Elementary School in Mississippi. It is exactly the type of school that the law was supposed to help, "but in Como and other poor, rural districts around the country, the law's regimen of testing and sanctions has had little, if any, effect," writes Whoriskey, who also took the photo, below, of Como students. (Encarta map)

"Despite abysmal test scores, Como earned a passing grade under No Child Left Behind, largely because the standards of student proficiency, which are determined individually by the states, have been set so low in Mississippi. Its small size also exempts it from some standards. The resulting passing grade -- it makes 'adequate yearly progress' -- has exempted Como Elementary from any of the corrective actions dictated by the law."

The law requires schools to have "highly qualified teachers," but Whoriskey reports, "Places such as Como face critical difficulties in attracting any teachers at all. The location is remote, the salaries are low, and its at-risk students are arguably more difficult to teach. More than a third of Como's 32 teachers are new this year, and five of those have been hired with an 'emergency license' because they lack full teacher training. At least three of the new teachers had been dismissed or released from other schools. One resigned after just a few weeks when he was found hiding from the third-graders in his class who were throwing papers at him." (Read more)

Missouri, Arizona officers testing hand-held scanner that can detect trace amounts of meth

Missouri state troopers and an Arizona sheriff's office are testing a device that can detect minute quantities of methamphetamine. The scanner "might signal the turning point in the war against one of the country's greatest drug scourges," writes Pete Smith of the Springfield News-Leader in Missouri. "But before police can begin widespread use of the scanner, it has to overcome several hurdles."

Those include confirming the hand-held scanner's reliability, obtaining investment for manufacturing and marketing, and overcoming objections of defense attorneys and civil libertarians. "Regardless of the obstacles, the meth scanner will likely debut in the coming months," Smith writes. (Read more)

The scanner is made by CDEX Inc. of Tuscon. Its CEO, Malcolm Philips, told The Associated Press that the company expects to begin marketing the scanner in December and have it available by February. The firm "decided to test it in Missouri because of the high number of meth labs there," AP reports. "In Arizona, the scanner is being tested by Greenlee County Sheriff's Office, where it played a role in two busts," according to Philips, but prosecutors have not based any evidence on it.

Springfield defense lawyer Stacie Bilyeu told AP, "Any time you have testing of a device by someone who stands to make a lot of money off of it, I am always suspect of that. If the testing was done by unbiased, nonpartisan groups, the results would be more reliable." She said use of the device could constitute an illegal search, and should not establish guilt. "This scanner only detects chemicals, not criminal conduct." (Read more)

Monday, October 29, 2007

West Virginia has highest frequency of deer-vehicle collisions in the country

A collision between a vehicle and a deer is more likely in West Virginia than in any other state, according to State Farm Insurance claims data from all of 2006 and early 2007. The insurer said a vehicle driving through West Virginia has a 1 in 57 chance of colliding with a deer — compare that to an individual's 1 in 150 chance of being audited by the IRS or 1 in 250,000 chance of being struck by lightning in the next year. Nationally, 1 in 216 vehicles will collide with a deer.

The risk is greater during the deer mating and migration season of October, November and December. George Hohmann of the Charleston Daily Mail writes, "In recent months, West Virginia wildlife officials have said the state's drought conditions this summer also increase the danger for deer to roam closer to major roadways. The need for new food sources is pushing them nearer to residential and metropolitan areas." (Read more)

States with the highest chances for deer collisions:
  1. West Virginia, 1 in 57
  2. Michigan, 1 in 86
  3. Wisconsin, 1 in 99
  4. Pennsylvania, 1 in 100
  5. Iowa, 1 in 109
Across the country, the total number of deer-vehicle collisions rose 6.3 percent last year, State Farm said. The average cost of the property damage caused by a collision was $2,900. For the full news release from State Farm, go here. A columnist in The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C., argues that hunting season helps reduce such collisions.

New documentary finds 'hope endures' for economic development in rural Kansas

Rural communities across Kansas and in many other states are shrinking. (For some figures on the trend, check out this post.) A new television documentary from the Kansas Farm Bureau offers some solutions, and it suggests that communities can stem the tide, reports the High Plains Journal.

"Rural Kansas: Hope Endures" will air across the state and on some satellite and cable systems this week. In the documentary, Kansans speak about the importance of preserving rural life, and emphasize that it can be done by encouraging local entrepreneurs.

"This story will resonate with everyone in Kansas, regardless of their address," KFB Communications and Public Relations Director Mike Matson, who wrote, produced and directed the documentary, told the High Plains Journal. "Auntie Em and Dorothy were on to something. The things that matter -- that will allow rural communities to survive, have been here all along. Despite the trends, this is an uplifting story." (Read more)

'Home agents' offer alternative to sending telephone customer support jobs overseas

Dialing a customer-support phone line often begins an experience in cross-cultural communication. That's because many companies have outsourced those jobs overseas, but a growing number are bringing those jobs home, literally. Marilyn Gardner of the Christian Science Monitor reports there is a countertrend called "homeshoring" or "inshoring" that is driving a demand for American agents who work from their homes.

Gardner reports that there currently are more than 110,000 home-based agents in the United States and market-researcher IDC of Framingham, Mass., predicts there will be 328,000 by 2012. "Several factors are fueling the popularity of these jobs: Parents and caregivers need flexible hours. Workers in gridlocked cities want to avoid long commutes and the high cost of fuel. And growing ranks of retirees are eager to supplement their income. At the same time, a backlash against outsourcing customer service to other countries is prompting some companies to bring work back to the US."

The work could be ideal for people who live in rural areas that would demand a lengthy commute for most jobs. To qualify, however, you need access to a high-speed Internet connection — something many rural areas lack. Some offers for this kind of work can turn out to be scams, so avoid online offers that do not spell out specific job requirements or descriptions. (Read more)

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)