McCain strong in border county
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DOTT, Pa. -- Signs from both political parties graced the front window, and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Gov. Sarah Palin grinned from fliers advertising a vice-presidential debate party.
Glenn Hiller bought and refurbished the Dott Store a year and a half ago, turning it into a country store with a steady lunch business -- and, Mr. Hiller hopes, a center for discourse in a rural area that is heavily Republican and mostly reserved about its politics.
Sitting by the window, next to piles of campaign pamphlets, Jim DeShong, 82, and Floyd Palmer, 90, lifelong Fulton County residents and strong supporters of Sen. John McCain, say they are a bit jarred by the political paraphernalia -- and Mr. Hiller's open support for Sen. Barack Obama.
"This is the wrong place to do it, in a place of business," Mr. Palmer said. "I wouldn't tell anyone my politics."
"I don't think it's very good for his business," Mr. DeShong added.
It isn't the first time Mr. Hiller has been outnumbered politically.
In 2004, Mr. Hiller heckled President Bush during an invitation-only campaign rally in West Virginia. His employer, advertising and design company Octavo Designs, fired him the next day saying Mr. Hiller embarrassed a client who had provided tickets to the rally.
Mr. Hiller says his rebellious moment was born of a desire to show the importance of dissent, not radical partisanship.
"Controlling a campaign event, controlling the media and giving the appearance of 100 percent support and putting that on TV -- that's nothing but propaganda," Mr. Hiller said.
"I was offended that things were moving in that direction."
Now Mr. Hiller is trying to restore civility to the political climate in a county that gave President Bush 76 percent of the vote in 2004, the highest percentage of any county in the state.
Set in the Allegheny Mountains on the Maryland border, Fulton County, population 14,261, is the crimson base to Pennsylvania's famous Republican 'T.'
Though the county's Democrats have been more visible this election cycle and polls show Mr. Obama's lead increasing statewide, interviews with dozens of residents last week showed overwhelming support for Mr. McCain and deep reservations about Mr. Obama.
"Obama's got two strikes on him before he even gets to the plate: 1. He's black. 2. He's a Muslim," said Charles Sipes, 68, of Harrisonville, repeating an oft-cited but untrue rumor about Mr. Obama's religion. "This country was based on white people, not blacks. Blacks belong underneath, not on top."
Most Fulton County interviewees didn't share Mr. Sipes' sentiments out loud, but many expressed fear and uneasiness about Mr. Obama.
"I'll probably go with McCain, and the only reason to go with him is I'm just afraid of what's going to happen with the other guy," said Don Peck, 68, owner of the Peck Wood Tavern in McConnellsburg. "I don't like [Mr. Obama's] background, where he came from. He's got a little bit of foreign in him."
Some voters said they were perturbed by the controversial sermons of Mr. Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, but others were adamant that Mr. Obama was Muslim, and were worried that he would ally with extremists or alienate Israel.
That fear also spread to economic policies that some voters cited as a recipe to worsen the financial crisis.
"I wouldn't vote for Obama because he'd raise capital gains taxes," said Mr. Palmer, of Dott. "I'd have to go on assistance."
Experience was the deciding factor for many McCain supporters, several of whom said they would have voted for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton if she had been the Democratic nominee. Many praised Mr. McCain's integrity and expressed reverence for his military service and time as a prisoner of war.
"I think Obama is a phony and a snake-oil salesman. His background is questionable and his patriotism is questionable," said Bill Watson, 61, of Hustontown. "There is no such question about McCain. You can take him at face value. He's already proven that he's a patriot. He wants to serve rather than rule, which sets him apart."
For Mr. Watson, who works at a truck stop "over the mountain" in Breezewood, Bedford County, devotion to Mr. McCain does not extend to Mr. Bush.
"He's an embarrassment," Mr. Watson said. "He's extremely inarticulate, and he's surrounded himself with some very bad advisers."
But many of the voters who supported the president so overwhelmingly in the last election -- he received 4,772 votes to Sen. John Kerry's 1,475 -- have maintained their confidence in him, with some saying they'd vote for Mr. Bush if he were able to seek a third term.
As in the rest of the country, there is general agreement in Fulton County that with two wars and an economic crisis, the nation is on the wrong track. Nationally, the blame is laid at the feet of the president, whose historically poor approval rating is hovering in the 20s.
Yet in Fulton County, lukewarm support remains.
"There have been a lot of ups and downs with Bush," said Amanda Shives, 24, of McConnellsburg, a mother of three who works for a credit card company. "He's had a lot of major things come through -- 9/11, Iraq. ... No matter who would have been in office, people wouldn't have been happy."
Auto mechanic Tim Mellott, 47, of Needmore, agreed that the events of the past eight years would have been difficult for anyone to handle.
"He's dealt with more in this country than any president since World War II," Mr. Mellott said. "After 9/11 he showed leadership and got the country back to work. Maybe he mishandled some things and has had a bad decline since then. ... I think there's enough blame to go around on both sides."
As wrangling over the proposed bailout plan continued on Capitol Hill last week, the first topic on voters' minds was the economy. But a close second -- in a county where camouflage is far more prevalent than businesswear -- is gun control.
"Second Amendment rights are just crucial," said county commissioner Daniel H. Swain Jr., 43, of Warfordsburg. "It's the Second Amendment for a reason -- it's second only in importance to the first."
Immediately, fellow county commissioner Bonnie Mellott Keefer, 54, of McConnellsburg, jumped in, saying, "I see the Second Amendment as the most important. It protects all the other rights. Otherwise, dictators have the ability to rise up."
Mr. Obama, who pushed for tougher gun regulation for Chicago while in the Illinois Senate, has been the target of a multimillion-dollar ad campaign by the National Rifle Association. The ads allege that he wants to severely restrict gun rights, though some of the claims have been challenged by independent fact-checking groups.
Democratic volunteers lamented the fact that Mr. Obama has been portrayed as anti-gun, saying it's one of the biggest obstacles they face in trying to convert Republican voters.
"You remind people that gun control for Obama is Uzis in South Chicago," said Joe Erwin, 67, of the Fulton County Democratic Committee. "He's talking about controlling violence in the city, not taking your hunting rifle."
The goal of the NRA is to keep some conservative Republicans from jumping ship, said G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor and pollster at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.
"They're making an all-out effort, the NRA, to elect McCain and raise questions about Obama. That's going to help some, don't get me wrong, but it's a tough row to hoe," Mr. Madonna said. "Guns are a big issue. ... They may not be able to hold them on some other issues."
The selection of Ms. Palin as Mr. McCain's vice presidential nominee has helped in Fulton County. Voters cited her hunting background as a reason to support the ticket, and social conservatives love her strong anti-abortion stance.
"People we call don't mention the economy, except for occasional talk about gas prices and 'Drill, baby, drill,' " said Mikael Fix, chairman of the Fulton County Republican Party.
"Pro-life and pro-gun, those are the two biggest issues."
For Fulton County Democrats, the aim is to pry the thoughts of undecided social conservatives away from guns and abortion and onto the economy. Polls have shown the public to be more confident in Mr. Obama's ability to handle the economy than in Mr. McCain's.
Fulton County Democrats have increased their visibility over the past few years, from holding a fund-raiser by selling chili to setting up a booth at the county fair. They have made outreach efforts on economic issues, including "tutorials" on Medicare and Social Security.
They hope the message can hit home in a place where the economic slowdown has had palpable effects. Farming of dairy and beef cattle, once the area's lifeblood, has been on the wane for a long time. The county's largest employer, JLG, which manufactures aerial construction platforms, laid off 220 workers Friday.
"People are very isolated here, and things that happen in the outside world don't always affect them -- they are now," said Joy Dasher, the organizer of the joint Democratic club for Fulton and Franklin counties.
"They are starting to think about change. It's starting to affect their world in Fulton County."
But support for Mr. McCain and doubts about Mr. Obama will be difficult to overcome. Republicans have more than a 1.5 -to-1 advantage in registration, and some wounds from the Democratic primary remain, pushing more voters to Mr. McCain's corner.
Several voters who disliked Mr. Obama mentioned his comments before the April primary at a fundraiser in San Francisco, in which he said of rural Pennsylvanians: "They get bitter. They cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."
There was strong backlash at the time -- Mr. Obama lost the primary by nearly 10 points. And Mr. McCain might reap rewards from those comments in November from the rural voters he'll need in huge numbers in order to carry the state.
"I wish [Mr. Obama] would have gotten zero [votes] from Pennsylvania for saying that," Gerald Chalupka, 60, said with a chuckle as he did some shopping at the Dollar General in McConnellsburg.
"I guess that makes me a Bible-thumping, gun-toting redneck."
First Published October 5, 2008 12:00 am