In Illinois, Clues to Obama's Electability

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The rookie state senator from Chicago had driven 340 miles to explore southern Illinois, but Barb Brown could muster only 20 Democrats in this small town on the Mississippi River to have breakfast with him. She asked her niece and sister-in-law, who were helping in the kitchen, to come out to pad the audience.

"We tried to convince people that they needed to come out and meet with this senator from Chicago, who on top of everything else was African American," Brown, a circuit court clerk, said of the 1997 gathering. "We had people looking at us strangely."

As Sen. Barack Obama emerges as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, worries linger in his party over whether he can improve on his poor showing among many rural and blue-collar voters in the primaries. Clues to that question lie here, outside metro Chicago, in a 400-mile-long swath of corn and soybean fields that, in the coal country of its southern reaches, shares more with Kentucky and Missouri than Chicago.

Obama's courting of the region began soon after he was elected to the legislature in 1996. Southern Illinoisans interpreted the visits as a sign that he was already thinking about a future run for statewide office, but they also served as a self-education in the middle-American milieu that his Kansan grandparents hailed from but that he knew little of, having grown up in Hawaii and Indonesia and spent his adult years in big cities. Before mostly white audiences, Obama would joke about his name -- rhyming it with "yo mama" -- and test out his message about getting past divisions to solve problems.
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