Could Obama Do Better Than Expected in Kentucky?

When I was starting out in journalism here in Louisville a zillion years ago, my newspaper colleagues and I viewed the neighborhood called Shively as an outpost of rural Kentucky in the midst of the city.

It was legally a jurisdiction unto itself, and the people there preferred it that way. Dixie Highway ran through it. It was the kind of place where you could buy a black velvet wall hanging with a hand-painted, neon-hued version of the Last Supper on it. The kind of place where you could attend one of the many small, evangelical churches that lined the highway. The folks who lived there tended to be immigrant families from small towns to the south—some as far away as Alabama—who had migrated north in search of industrial work.

Shively, not surprisingly, is where Bill Clinton has been campaigning in the final, gloomy days leading up to the Democratic presidential primary in Kentucky. His wife, Sen. Hillary Clinton, almost certainly will win big in the Bluegrass State. The question is: how big? The former president was here trying to make the margin impressive.

Sen. Barack Obama has a good organization here. He hasn't visited much, and his campaign is downplaying this state's importance in the race for the nomination, which he has almost wrapped up. Still, the Obama team is trying to exceed his low expectations here—which call for Hillary to win by at least 25 points.

He may do that, but I'm not quite convinced. Steve Henry, a former lieutenant governor and prominent Democrat, told me that he had organized for Clinton in western Kentucky—and failed to find a single county judge (that's the local chief executive) "who wasn't willing to support Hillary." In other words, most of the party structure in the state is for her, thanks in part to the Clintons' long, friendly ties to the state.

Louisville may be a somewhat different story. This gracious old city on the southern banks of the Ohio River has transformed itself under the shrewd, longtime leadership of Mayor Jerry Abramson. (The mayor has remained neutral in the presidential race. Much of his city's constituency is for Obama, but he has longstanding ties to the Clintons.) Louisville is on the cutting edge of a new New South, powered by arts, higher education and health care. The energetic and entrepreneurial sons and daughters of leading local families such as the Browns and the Binghams have returned to the city to renew their roots and pitch in.

Still, Kentucky is shaping up as another haunting asterisk in Obama's extra-inning victory box score. In the fall, Obama doesn't have to win all of the voters in Shively. Indeed, Kentucky may not even be in play in the race against Republican Sen. John McCain.

But Obama is going to need to reach them if he wants to become president of all the people, even of all the Democrats.

I drove out Dixie Highway to talk to voters who'd gathered in the gym of Butler Traditional High School to see the former president and, by extension, support his wife.

They came in three categories. One was represented by a lady of uncertain age from a small county in eastern Kentucky. You know her type from the pictures: a visage lined deep with care and too many cigarettes, a smile-through-it-all smile: a survivor in the guerilla war of life. "I'm with Hillary 'cause there is no quit in her," she said. "She's not a quitter and neither am I." Clinton is a symbol to voters such as these and, in that sense, you can't possible ask her to drop out of the race until the last dog dies.

Greg Wagner, who is in the real-estate business in the area, embodied the second category. He wore a bright blue University of Kentucky jacket and cap. His support for Clinton was cold-eyed and somewhat resigned. He was a Democrat and simply saw no way that America would ever elect Obama to the White House. It was just too heavy a lift. Obama's failures in some other states bothered him deeply. "I would hope that he could win in the fall, but how?" Wagner said. He assumed that primary failures were a signal of weakness in the fall. "How can we win the White House without Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Florida? I just don't see it."

Carl Bensinger, a local lawyer who wore a business suit and black overcoat to ward off the rain, defined the third category. He was for Clinton because she was the most experienced. But he thought that either she or Obama would be able to unite the party at the Democrats' convention in Denver. Obama could, he said, win those swing states of Pennsylvania and Ohio. "Concern about the economy trumps everything else," he said. "That's how we win."
I wanted to see the former president again—I have caught his act a couple of times this season—but his plane was two hours late getting out of New York. I had to hustle off to business of my own: I have a new book to sell. But I saw the lawyer later at my book signing at Carmichael's, the city's homey and superbly stocked independent bookstore. "Clinton was very good," Bensinger reported. He sounded a bit wistful, as if to say: too bad it wasn't Bill Clinton running for a third term.

The next morning, the former president's picture made the front page of The Courier-Journal. BILL CLINTON RALLIES SUPPORT IN LOUISVILLE the headline said.

Well, let's see. Let's watch the returns from Louisville and surrounding Jefferson County. And don't forget Shively.

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