JEFFERSON CITY, Mo.
If Sen. Barack Obama wins the presidency on Election Day, he will probably have the heartland to thank. Mr. Obama today holds a solid lead in Iowa, a slim lead in Missouri and barely trails Republican Sen. John McCain in Indiana - three states that backed President Bush in 2004 and represent 29 electoral votes, more than enough to make up Republicans’ margin of victory last time.
The Washington Times logged more than 1,100 miles driving the Midwest to gauge voter sentiment before the Nov. 4 election and found deep discontent with the nation’s course, severe economic woes and discomfort with the possibility of the first black president, all of which may sway the results.
In Missouri, where the campaign has more than 40 offices and an army of grass-roots volunteers, some of Mr. Obama’s support comes from fed-up Republicans such as John Lindsey, 28, a restaurant server in Columbia who said he regrets his vote for Mr. Bush in 2004.
“Obama and Biden, more than McCain’s party, they represent change and not just rhetoric,” Mr. Lindsey said. “It feels like enough people want change and they may think, like I do, that the country really needs the other party this time.”
The Show Me State has an unemployment rate of 6.6 percent, its highest in 17 years, and nearly 800,000 people are living at the poverty line.
A car dealership employee from Jefferson City said she sees more McCain voters in town, but thinks Mr. Obama might win Missouri because “they are for the people, for the workers.”
Both voters attended an event starring vice presidential nominee Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. in the capital city’s Memorial Park, where a supporter enthusiastically responded to campaign promises with “Get ‘er done!”
However, along Missouri’s rural roads near the Ozark Mountains, there are troubling signs for the Democrats.
A mysterious billboard along Highway 63 in West Plains highlights Mr. Obama’s middle name, Hussein, and includes a drawing of the candidate wearing a turban, a takeoff on the inaccurate rumors Mr. Obama is not a Christian. It charges the Democrat would increase “abortions, same-sex marriages, taxes [and] gun regulations.”
A shop owner said he was appalled by the sign, which appeared one morning and has generated spirited discussion in the local paper the Daily Quill.
“It’s like the KKK. Someone put it up and no one will say who did it. I guess it’s well within your First Amendment rights, but you should own up to it,” he said.
Not far from the Obama billboard, another sign declared: “Had enough? Vote Democrat.”
Missouri has chosen the winner of the presidential election every cycle since 1956, and before that, every cycle since the turn of the century.
Mr. Obama, who declined to accept public funding and the limits it places on campaign spending, is dominating the heartland airwaves. Obama ads portraying the Democrat as the moderate on health care, attacking Mr. McCain for his health care plan and for proposing big spending are running more regularly than McCain ads across the Midwest.
In Missouri, three Obama ads aired during a half-hour segment of local news, which gave favorable coverage to Mr. Biden’s two-day barnstorm.
The Obama campaign is also sponsoring robocalls that say Mr. McCain won’t help the middle class because he is tied to Mr. Bush’s economic policies of helping the wealthy.
“You can’t rebuild an economy with a middle class that’s shrinking. You’ve got to build the middle class, that’s how you build an economy,” Mr. Biden told voters here during his rally last week.
In Omaha, where the Obama campaign is targeting one congressional district to take advantage of Nebraska’s split electoral-vote system, voters see a two-minute ad with the nominee proclaiming, “bitter, partisan fights and outworn ideas of the left and the right won’t solve the problems we face today. But a new spirit of unity and shared responsibility will.”
Nancy Lawson, 61, has always voted for Republicans. However, the Nebraska native has been laid off from her job in architecture, lost her home and is facing expensive health challenges with minimal insurance coverage.
“This is supposed to be my golden years,” she said. “But I’ve had to use food stamps. I worry about my kids and now I worry about my grandchildren in the future and what’s going to happen for them.”
She’s supporting Mr. Obama because, “I’ve had it, I’ve had enough,” and the campaign has her volunteering to recruit other Republicans to support the Democratic ticket.
However, Melissa Schere of Gretna, Neb., is voting for the Republican ticket because of vice presidential nominee Gov. Sarah Palin.
“What I really like is how she’s down to earth and can really connect to moms. I feel like she understands,” said Mrs. Schere, a 28-year-old third-grade teacher.
Kenneth Smalley of Hamburg, Iowa, agreed, calling the Alaska governor a “breath of fresh air.”
“That’s what we need, and there are things about Obama’s past I’m not sure about. He seems unknown,” Mr. Smalley said.
Mr. Obama has also put in his time on the ground, rallying thousands in Indianapolis Wednesday and telling voters he understands they are “cynical” and “angry” with national leadership.
“But despite all of this, I ask of you … to believe. To believe in yourselves, believe in each other, believe in the future,” he said. “We cannot fail, not now. Not when we have a crisis to solve, not when we have an economy to save.”
McCain supporter Ambassador Dan Coats, a former senator from Indiana, told reporters he is “a little surprised” the race is so close, but thinks it’s a “natural reaction” to the economy and voters taking a look at “the new guy.”
“People ultimately won’t conclude Barack Obama has the depth of experience,” he said.
•Explore different election-night scenarios with our ‘Road to 270’ interactive electoral college map.