Fineman: The Small-Town Presidential Campaign

Richard Nixon lived in Manhattan after he lost in 1960, but when he ran for president again eight years later, he highlighted his youth in the rural California town of Whittier. Bill Clinton studied at Georgetown, Yale and Oxford, but his convention speech in New York in 1992 was a paean to his Arkansas birthplace, "a town called Hope." Even George W. Bush—of Andover, Yale and Harvard—offered himself in 2000 as a product of the Texas oil-patch town of Midland.

So do we still have this thing for small-town rural America when we choose our presidents?

It's a question worth asking, because there is a fault line running through this year's presidential field. The front runners in both parties—Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney—are metropolitan people, bred and based. And yet for the most part we tend to choose presidents who can certify that they have roots in the kind of small-town America we used to symbolize with a log cabin.

There are a few John Cougar Mellencamps in the race, guys who can sing along with his rock anthem: John Edwards, of Robbins, N.C.; Fred Thompson, of Lawrenceburg, Tenn.; and Mike Huckabee, also of Hope, Ark. Edwards and Thompson have traveled far from their roots but still define themselves by them. Huckabee, so far, hasn't strayed very far from Little Rock.

It seems to me that one or more of these three is going to make a move at some point—if for no other reason than someone of their ilk always has. It's in our history.

America has had urbane, sophisticated presidents—the Roosevelts, William Howard Taft, and Jack Kennedy. But with the arguable exception of George H. W. Bush, we haven't really had a pure one since JFK. Nixon's resentment was bred in his dad's grocery store near the orange groves. Ronald Reagan absorbed the glitz of Hollywood and married a society woman (Nancy Davis), but anyone who knew him knew that he was more Dixon, Ill., than anywhere else. Jimmy Carter was Plains, Ga., all the way, the Naval Academy notwithstanding.

Why do we pick such people, or at least demand that homage be paid to their small-town roots—especially when so much of the country has been moving to the cities and suburbs in recent years?

Well, we may be deluding ourselves, but we seem to regard that kind of background as somehow more likely to produce honest people. Americans have an ingrained suspicion of the Powers That Be, and, as a result, we may think that someone from outside the big-league centers is more likely to tame the beast of unaccountable power.

Also, there are still votes in these places—lots of crucial votes Democrats need in order to win "Red States" that have gone over to the GOP. It's no accident that, as they have struggled to maintain some balance in the Electoral College balloting, the Democrats in recent decades have won only with two small-town Southerners, Carter and Clinton (and Lyndon Johnson, who arguably could be added to that list).

Edwards, Huckabee and now Thompson are working these areas in the primaries. Edwards has been to all 99 counties in Iowa, many more than once, in the nearly five years he has been seeking the presidency. If he pulls off a win in Iowa, it will be due to the support he has kept in rural western Iowa. Huckabee is working the same terrain, and both candidates are doing the same thing in rural New Hampshire.

Edwards has an adviser named Mudcat Sanders, who, when you meet him, lives up to his name. Mudcat has a farmer's tan, a hangdog visage and a gravelly, bourbon-soaked drawl. He looks and talks like a guy you might meet on the loading dock of a Southern States Co-op, tossing bags of feed into his pickup.

His message is simple, and he has spent most of his career selling it. The whole political class, he says, but especially the Democrats, underestimate the stories, needs and votes of rural, small-town folk and their "exurban" kin, who live on the periphery of metropolitan areas but who look out to the countryside rather than in to the cities.

Another factor: as usual in our history, rural America is sending a disproportionate share of men and women into military service. The Democrats have a chance to tap into the increasing anguish of military families about the war in Iraq and their treatment at the hands of the Pentagon.

When Mudcat calls, it's as though he is asking you to go hunting. "Why don't you come on up to northern New Hampshire with us for a few days?" he asked me the other week. The idea was to see Edwards bond, so Mudcat hoped, with sawmill workers and loggers who love the White Mountains for the beauty and the game.

It's easy, at first glance, to dismiss Mudcat as a colorful museum piece in the titanium-clad virtual reality of 21st-century presidential campaigning. After all, most voters live in close-in suburbs, the census shows, and rural America is all but ignored by the cheeky chatter of most big-time news and entertainment. "Gossip Girl" lives in the city.

Also, the presidential candidates tend to spend their fund-raising time (which is a huge chunk of all of their time) in megacities, where fat cats, not Mudcats, are thick upon the ground—places such as New York, L.A., San Francisco, Dallas, Chicago, Houston and Boston.

But though the cities are where all the money is, rural America is where some pivotal votes are—and where, at least if you read the history, America's heart has been.