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Economy trumps rural issues

ST. PAUL -- Sen. Barack Obama visited Wisconsin and did not mention agriculture, despite being surrounded by corn and soybean fields, with cranberry bogs just down the road.

Sen. John McCain has been in Upper Midwestern states several times, also all but ignoring rural topics. During a Twin Cities rally, his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, skipped an opportunity to mention ethanol and other Midwest-produced renewable fuels when she mentioned "alternative fuels" in passing.

In three presidential and one vice presidential debates, rural issues took up seconds out of 360 minutes they consumed. One rural advocate was thrilled when Obama briefly mentioned the need to expand broadband communications access in rural America: "I also think that we're going to have to rebuild our infrastructure, which is falling behind, our roads, our bridges -but also broadband lines that reach into rural communities."

Earlier this summer, Upper Midwest politicians were excited that it appeared their areas held a key to who would become president, and they were hopeful that rural issues would be in the forefront.

"I think the Upper Midwest is one of the keys to this election," said Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota.

That still may be true, but Obama and McCain have said very little about issues of prime importance to rural folks. And that may be just fine with many rural Americans.

A poll of rural residents of several states presidential campaigns are contesting - including Wisconsin and Minnesota - shows they are more interested in the next president fixing overall economic issues than candidates who reflects rural values.

The Kentucky-based Center for Rural Strategies' poll indicates rural Americans place national economic needs ahead of their own wants by a 61 percent to 36 percent margin. That puts into question whether McCain can hold on to his 51-41 lead among rural residents.

Rural Americans give McCain an advantage on rural issues 46 percent to 43 percent, but poll analysts say that could end up meaningless, depending on how Republican McCain and Democrat Obama handle economic issues the rest of the campaign.

While rural America generally votes Republican, the economy could change that and McCain could suffer.

"We think that's because he has failed to make an effective argument on the one issue rural voters care about most -- the economy," Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg said. "Rural voters seem to be trying to decide which candidate can best address their economic concerns, and that means the rural battleground could be more competitive than we saw in 2004."

One positive for McCain is Palin, who is more popular among rural voters than either presidential candidate and Obama's running mate, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware.

Palin talked about being mayor of a small town in her acceptance speech during the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, the most visible discussion of rural or small-town issues of the campaign -- other than common McCain references to his opposition to agriculture subsidies.

A majority of rural voters told pollsters that Palin represents their values and think she is qualified for the job.

One of McCain's main rural advisors admitted that his candidate is not well known or understood in agriculture-heavy rural America. And, former Deputy Agriculture Secretary Jim Moseley said, the Arizona Republican has spent little time dealing with farm issues.

On the other hand, "you don't find too many liberals in agriculture," Moseley added.

In recent Minnesota campaign swings, two Obama supporters said he is a good rural candidate, despite living in Chicago.

"Barack Obama -- born in Kansas," former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack said. "So his first experience, if you will, his formidable years were spent in a rural state. ... The reality is he is from a lot of different places."

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said Obama, his fellow Illinois senator, has traveled their state meeting with rural audiences.

And, like the Rural Strategies poll showed, Obama has a chance to capitalize on the economic problems, Durbin said. "I think the state of the overall economy may change this equation. I think there will be more people open for change than we have seen in the past in rural areas."

As to Obama and McCain nearly ignoring rural issues in their campaigns, Durbin said he understands the situation.

"In fairness to Barack, my head is spinning a little bit as I go from stop to stop," Durbin said during a rushed St. Paul interview. "And his schedule is 10 times worse. You have got to stay grounded and focused and occasionally you do make an omission."