Obama shows an ability to transcend race
Connects in Iowa on shared values
ATLANTIC, Iowa -- At first it seems like an unusual sight: Barack Obama, a black United States senator from the South Side of Chicago, trying to market himself to white, rural farming communities like this one nestled between Des Moines and Omaha.
And yet there he was Thursday, perched on a wooden platform in an open-air pavilion that smelled like livestock, seeking a common denominator with voters as they ate bratwurst, grilled corn, and watermelon.
"The basic idea is that we're all in it together -- we rise and fall together," Obama told them. "People here understand that. That's part of the values that have been so important in Iowa and part of the values that are so important in Illinois. Those are the values we grew up on, especially in rural communities -- you couldn't survive if people weren't looking out for one another."
Drawing on his white mother's Kansan heritage and his success in rural Illinois during his Senate race, Obama casts himself as a unifying force capable of seeing the country's woes from the vantage points of cornfields and ghettos alike.
Through such appeals to shared values, Obama is transcending any perceived racial or cultural gulf between himself and the overwhelmingly white electorate here, his supporters and Iowa voters say.
As a result, he moves easily through Iowa crowds in which he is often one of the few -- and sometimes the only -- African-American.
"Who's this sweetie pie?" Obama asked a man holding his daughter at the Iowa State Fair. "Daddy carrying you around all day?"
Obama's campaign is well aware of the message that a strong showing in the Iowa caucus in January would send about America's white voters being willing to line up behind a black candidate.
"That's the big one," Temo Figueroa, Obama's national field director, told campaign volunteers at a training session last weekend in St. Louis.
Interviews with voters suggest he is making progress.
"A good, fair, honest man," said Roger Steffens, a 59-year-old from Atlantic who runs a bed and breakfast and has Republican leanings. "Race isn't important."
"That's one of the things I like about him -- he can fit in anyplace," said Marie Mancuso, a 63-year-old from Ames, even though she is voting for someone else. (She won't say whom.)
Some voters say they marvel at how Obama has been able to make such inroads in a state that is so white -- 94 percent, according to the 2000 Census.
Iowa polls show him in a tight race with the other leading Democrats, Senator Hillary Clinton of New York and former North Carolina senator John Edwards.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. We hardly have any blacks at all," said Robert Euken, a 79-year-old truck driver from Cumberland. "He [talks] about the wrongs that they're doing in Washington, D.C. If he can fix that, he's the man we want."
One weapon Obama uses in appealing to rural voters is his wife, Michelle, who comes from a middle-class black family on Chicago's South Side but is at ease in Iowa talking about their two daughters, and how she makes sure they are well grounded.
"The children in this country need to know they come first, and our girls do," she said in introducing her husband in Atlantic. "It's basic values."
Michelle Obama also touts her husband's crossover appeal by citing his experience in the 2004 Senate race. Obama won the Democratic primary overwhelmingly, capturing several rural downstate counties and white neighborhoods in the Chicago area.
Courtney Greene, an aide to Iowa Governor Chet Culver, said she believes the acceptance of Obama is more a testament to the man than to the progress the country has made on racial harmony.
"I think it's both, but if I had to tip the scales one way, it would be to who he is," said Greene, who is black.
Part of Obama's success connecting with Iowa voters also stems simply from the fact that he has been here a lot. Through last week, Obama has spent 35 days in Iowa over 20 visits, according to his campaign.
On Friday, Obama was in Tama, east of Des Moines, hosting a gathering on rural issues.
He met with farmers to gain input for his forthcoming plan to address the concerns of rural areas.
Obama said he would work to redirect federal subsidies from agribusiness to small farmers, make investments in alternative energy sources beyond corn-based ethanol, and bring high-speed Internet access to remote communities.
"I come from a farm state," he said. "I fought these battles for rural America. I've done it at the State House, I've done it in the Capitol of the United States, and I intend to do it in the White House as well."
Obama has written extensively on and sometimes talks about his mother, Ann Dunham, who grew up in Kansas, and his early confusion over his identity.
Alice Mullin, a 60-year-old from Atlantic who teaches at-risk high school students, questioned why people call Obama black.
"My response to 'he's black' is, he's half-white," she said.
Indeed, Obama's biracial background, nontraditional childhood, educational pedigree, and political history have prompted some black leaders to question whether he is "black enough," a question that has nagged at him since his days as an Illinois politician.
But here in Iowa, Obama's racial identity, at least for many Democrats, feels about as irrelevant as the color of his shirt.
"He's real sensitive to all the issues of minorities, and majorities, and everything," said Peter Wobeter, a 57-year-old farmer from Toledo, Iowa.
"He's just a real likable guy."
Scott Helman can be reached at email@example.com.