Obama spreads the word in a land of God and guns
Barack Obama is battling for Republican votes in a crucial swing state that John McCain seems to have ignored. And it looks as if the Democrat could be winning. Guy Adams reports from Elko, Nevada
At Gun World and Archery on the outskirts of Elko, Farnes Williams is talking politics. At the same time, he brandishes an assault rifle of the sort John Rambo might use to single-handedly take out a Burmese military base. The weapon, he says, lies at the heart of the 2008 presidential election.
"The military call this an M16 assault rifle, but round here we call it a sporting firearm," he says. "It's used for shooting squirrels, rabbits or coyotes. But you could kill some two-legged critter with it if you wanted. So if Barack Obama wins, it'll be one of the first to get banned."
Mr Williams does not need a sign in his window telling customers to vote Republican; most of them already do. In this remote region of Nevada's high desert, where three out of four adults own firearms and weekends are spent hunting in the nearby Ruby Mountains, the right to bear arms is not so much a political issue as a local obsession.
Gun enthusiasts are not the only Republican-leaning lobby in Elko, either. The region's major industry is mining, which pays the wages of roughly one in four working adults. Mike McKenzie, the operations manager of Elko's Gold County Mining Company, says they have a healthy dislike of environmentalists and their left-leaning friends in Washington. "A lot of our work's on public land, and if Obama wins, he'll tax us more for using it. John McCain comes from a different place on environmentalism, and he's open about drilling for oil offshore. So that makes him fine by me."
As Mr McKenzie and Mr Williams suggest, Elko is a hard-scrabble town of the Wild West, where men are men, and registered Republicans outnumber Democrats among the 20,000-odd voters by a margin of more than three to one. It is hardly the sort of place you'd expect to find apple-cheeked Barack Obama supporters preaching wishy-washy liberalism and "Change we can believe in." Yet something is stirring for the Democrats in this corner of rural Nevada. So far this election season, an extraordinary procession of party grandees have trekked the four hours north-east of Reno (or the six hours west of Salt Lake City) to stand on soap-boxes in Elko's parks, convention centres, and college auditoriums.
Barack Obama has spoken there not once, or twice, but three times (and is due back in Nevada on Saturday). Hillary Clinton recently visited, along with Jimmy Carter. And on Monday afternoon, Bill Clinton completed the set, addressing a crowd of 400 at the Great Basin College Amphitheatre.
"You have to hire a president who can restore the American Dream," he told a cheering and boisterous audience. "You have to hire someone who can get the jobs coming back, and the incomes coming back, and that someone is Senator Obama."
This left-wing invasion of Elko's dusty streets forms a key part of the Democrat strategy to secure a small foothold in blue-collar rural communities where the party has in recent years been virtually non-existent. It is a lofty plan, which Senator Obama outlined in the 2004 convention speech that launched his career as an internationally renowned politician, in which he described a united America where people can "coach Little League in the blue states and have gay friends in the red states".
To electoral tacticians, Elko also happens to lie at the heart of a crucial county in one of the nation's most important swing states, which has flipped between the Democrats and Republicans throughout history, and been won by each of the past seven presidents. In 2004, George Bush won Nevada by just 20,000 votes, from a total of 800,000. His brand of free-market libertarianism seemed to strike a chord with voters in this famously independent corner of America, where gambling and prostitution are legal, and there is no state income tax.
This time, it's a different picture, though. Urban immigration has made Nevada the fastest-growing state in the country, and many newcomers are instinctively Democratic. In addition, the Bush years have turned sour for many locals. Las Vegas, the engine of the state's economy, is struggling to attract free-spending tourists, and the southern counties now have some of the highest foreclosure rates in the country.
Obama now has a lead of between 1 and 2 per cent in the polls. But it is nowhere near enough to be complacent. Although he is sure to carry Las Vegas, Reno, and other urban areas, to carry the whole of Nevada, he must avoid being totally trounced in the rural areas. That is where Elko comes in.
"I don't think we'll ever take Elko County, but that's not our aim," says the veteran local Democratic vice- chair, Nora Hatfield. "Our job is to get in the 40 percentile here, and if we do that, the Democrats will certainly take Nevada."
So the party has poured resources into the area. "At the last election, we didn't even have an office in Elko," Ms Hadfield adds. "This time, we haven't just got one, we've also got paid staff. In 2004, we had a tiny handful of activists. Our goal now is to have 100 people knocking on doors every day for the next three weeks."
It could already be working. At Elko Convention Centre, where early voting started on Saturday, surprisingly strong turnouts have been reported, with queues an hour long, and more than 500 voters a day being reported. A brief (and unscientific) straw poll of voters leaving the centre during an hour-long stint revealed six who had backed Obama and 10 for McCain. The Republicans were dyed-in-the-wool types, who said abortion, national security, Sarah Palin and "just hating Obama" had brought them to the polls.
The Democrats came from a broader church: some housewives, a bartender, and a couple of small business owners. Three had voted for President Bush in 2004, including Don Newman, the Convention Centre's executive director, who said Elko's business community may swing behind Mr Obama. "I'm actually a long-standing Republican voter who registered as a Democrat so I could get Hillary off the ticket by voting in the primaries," he says. "But the more I've been following this election, the more I feel Obama is the right person for the country. The traditional Republican position is about low taxes and supporting business. I used to support that. But I now feel that big business has screwed the country over these past eight years, and I'm looking to the person who can take the country forward in the way people like me need. That's Barack Obama."
Mr Newman and people like him have helped create a head of steam for the Obama campaign. The Republican machine seems subdued, and somewhat angry that Elko County has been ignored by senior party figures for the best part of the year. "I think there's a lot of Republicans frustrated that we haven't had more visits from senior Republicans," says Reece Keener, the local party chairman. "We haven't seen John McCain or Sarah Palin in town. When people complain to me about it, there's not much I can say, except that they must be going to other places where the pollsters feel they're most needed. The Democratic message is so at odds with most of the rural philosophy that they've got to do a good sales job to win voters over. And I have to say, to their credit, that they're doing a really good job. Will it have some effect? I'm sure it will."
More importantly, the mathematics of Nevada's ballot box now seem firmly tilted in Mr Obama's favour. Immigration since 2004 – much of it Hispanic – has helped the Democrats increase their number of registered voters in the state from 428,808 to 598,584. In the same period, the Republican share increased far less rapidly, from 434,209 to 504,857.
In 2004, John Kerry carried Las Vegas by a clear margin (many of his registered supporters failed to turn out) but his losses in rural areas such as Elko (trounced by 11,938 to 3,050) saw him narrowly defeated.
This time, Mr Obama has learnt that to win Nevada's five electoral college votes, he will have to win a portion of the vote in its isolated towns of God and guns. "You have to show up," he said, when The New York Times asked him how he hoped to win America's blue-collar vote. By way of an example, he added: "I've been to Elko, Nevada, now three times."
Nevada Home of casinos
* Nevada has 1,395,484 voters, of whom 598,584 are registered Democrats and 504,857 are Republicans. A relatively-high 216,634 support smaller parties (many are libertarians); the rest of the electorate is independent.
* In 2004, there were 429,808 Democrats and 434,209 Republicans, which helped George Bush carry the state by 20,000 votes. Most of the new Democrat voters are Latino immigrants to the city of Las Vegas.
* Nevada was the 36th state to enter the union in 1864, and is known as the "Silver State" because of thesilver deposits that were originally found and mined there.
* Most of Nevada is desert, and 86 per cent of it is owned by the government. The most remote areas have been used for nuclear testing, and are also one of the world's most fertile sites for UFO sightings.
* 65 per cent of the population is white, 7.1 per cent African-American, 6 per cent Asian, and the rest Hispanic.
* Unregulated gambling is legal throughout Nevada and prostitution is legal outside major towns. There is no state income tax.
Campaign stops in Elko
Barack Obama – three (a fourth planned)
Hillary Clinton – two
Bill Clinton – one
Jimmy Carter – one
John Edwards – one
Mitt Romney – one