The sun is going down over the Jackson County Fairgrounds in southern Oregon, washing everything in that kind, soft light that you tend to see in uplifting campaign commercials. You might call it the best light possible. Beneath this light, a line of excited Hillary Clinton supporters stretches from a Secret Service screening area toward the fairground parking lot.
Almost every single person in the line is white.
This is the twilight of Hillary Clinton's run for the Democratic presidential nomination: stops in friendly areas of rural America where the candidate can meet her hardest of hardcore supporters. These are the people she recently described rather bluntly to USA Today as "hard-working Americans, white Americans"—people who want to see Clinton's chances in the best light possible and love it when she takes the stage and tells them that the race for the Democratic nomination is not over.
It's May 9, and by almost every available metric, it is, in fact, over. Barring catastrophe or the collapse of mathematics as we know it, Barack Obama will be the Democratic nominee. Clinton is losing to him in the popular vote, the number of states won, and the race for pledged Democratic National Convention delegates. Within a few days, she will be losing by another important metric: pledged superdelegates, those Democratic party leaders whose support will ultimately settle this protracted nomination battle. Until Obama's big win in North Carolina and narrow loss in Indiana on May 6, Clinton had proudly maintained a lead among the superdelegates who had made their preferences known. Now, with only six more primaries remaining, the superdelegates see the writing on the wall. Every day, more come out for Obama or switch over to his side.
The eventual outcome has become so clear that Obama is suggesting he will declare victory after Oregon's primary on May 20. In the meantime, he's not talking much on the trail about Clinton. He spends most of his time talking instead about John McCain, while those following the campaign spend most of their time wondering how and when Clinton will exit the race.
And yet Clinton is pressing on. Why? And for who, exactly?
I sit down on a bench next to Philip Frisby, 84, a retired cement-truck driver from Grants Pass, Oregon, who is waiting to get into the rally.
"I think it's just great that she's staying in," Frisby tells me. He's wearing a flannel work shirt and a weathered cowboy hat, and he isn't a big fan of Obama.
Frisby doesn't trust Obama's patriotism. He's heard, for example, that Obama won't sing the national anthem, that the candidate considers it a war song. "How good an American could he be if that's his way of thinking?" Frisby asked. "His patriotism goes one way—that's his way."
How did Frisby hear about Obama's dislike of the national anthem? Via e-mail, the way that a number of people tell me they've heard discomfiting things about the Illinois senator.
A lot of viral smears about Obama have been circulating via e-mail since the early days of the campaign, and not just in rural areas. Obama is a secret Muslim. Obama won't put his hand over his heart for the Pledge of Allegiance. Obama is the Antichrist (though I didn't hear that one in Jackson County). The smears seem to be having some effect. A national poll released in March by NBC and the Wall Street Journal found that the percentage of Americans who believed Obama to be a Muslim was on the rise, and Obama has been asked about his faith all across the country. This particular smear that Frisby has heard, that Obama refuses to sing the national anthem, is new to me. But when I eventually take my seat in the press area and tell the reporter sitting next to me about Frisby's concern, the reporter is able to quickly pull up a post on the website FactCheck.org that debunks the Pledge of Allegiance story. It turns out the story originates with a satirical 2007 column on a conservative website based in Arizona, a column that people are now forwarding around the country as fact.
Margaret Roper, 74, a homemaker from Grants Pass, is standing near a line for sausages just outside the arena. Inside, Clinton campaign workers are removing chairs from the arena floor, apparently sensing, correctly, that despite the line outside, this event is not going to be full. Roper is wearing a denim work shirt with flowers stitched onto the left shoulder and a big Hillary button pinned to one of the flower blossoms.
"I don't think she should drop out," Roper tells me. "I think she should stay in until the last."
She, too, has concerns about Obama. "I don't think he's got the qualifications she does," Roper says. "I think she's a better person." One reason: "I think you should be proud to be an American. I think he should defend our country in every way, shape, and form. I would not have listened to the things his preacher said."
She's talking about Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., Obama's former pastor and a source of continuing trouble for Obama's campaign. But the Wright drama aside, does Roper think that Clinton can even win the nomination at this point?
"It's possible," Roper says. "She's a fighter."
This is another common refrain from Clinton supporters: She's a scrappy campaigner who can still pull this off, delegate math be damned.
Next I meet Deanna Rogers, 43, a real-estate agent from Medford. She cannot explain how Clinton still has a viable path to the nomination, but she says something that's becoming familiar to me.
"She can't give up now. It's not over until it's over."
Jackson County has very few black people. Its population of nearly 200,000 is about 95 percent white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Only about 20 percent of its adults over age 25 have college degrees. At the Clinton rally, another reporter leans over and asks if I've seen any black people. I have not.
This is an agricultural community; the tallest building in the town near the fairground is a grain-storage elevator belonging to a grange co-op. In elections, the county votes Republican. If you were trying to find a place in Oregon where Democrats don't have much day-to-day exposure to people like Obama—and end up spending a great deal of their time in contact with Republicans—then this county would be a good place to look.
Clinton arrives almost an hour late to her rally at the Jackson County Fairgrounds and opens with an apology. She was in South Dakota and West Virginia earlier in the day, she says, and only then headed west.
"I apologize that we were kind of flying against the wind," she says. "But, you know, that's the story of my life: fly against the wind, you'll get there eventually."
The crowd erupts in cheers.
For the most part, though, Clinton's appearance proceeds along a now-standard course. She talks about being more interested in solutions than speeches, a dig at Obama; she discusses her gas-tax-holiday proposal, her health-care plan, and her Iraq ideas; and she issues a (hopeless) challenge to Obama to debate her anytime and anywhere.
The only new bit of her stump speech, to my ears, comes during Clinton's closing, during which she explains her reasons for continuing on with her fight for the nomination.
"You know," Clinton begins, "people say to me all the time, 'Boy, you're a fighter.' Well, yes, because you know there's a lot in life that is worth fighting for and this country is worth fighting for."
She continues: "People say to me all the time, 'Well, are you going to keep going?' Of course I'm going to keep going. I'm gonna keep going because you keep going."
She's a fighter. She's a patriot. She's one of them. And, implicitly, she's not that other guy. The one who makes some folks nervous and uncomfortable and who those e-mails say is un-American (and maybe a Muslim, too).
The next day I am in Eugene, about 170 miles north but a great distance culturally from the fairground where Clinton spoke. Eugene is a college town—younger, more diverse, better educated. This is Obama territory.
I walk onto the quadrangle at the University of Oregon, where workers are setting up metal barricades, a large stage, and a backdrop with red, white, and blue bunting for an Obama rally later in the evening. Joseph Links, 21, a sophomore studying journalism, is relaxing in the grass with friends. He says he plans to go to the Obama rally and I tell him about the Clinton supporters I met in Jackson County the previous day—the concerns about the national anthem, the pastor, and the secret Muslim thing. I ask Links if he thinks rural white voters will be a problem for Obama.
"I think it might be hard for him to get the rural vote just because of education in certain areas," Links says. "But that's just part of campaigning."
He doesn't sound concerned.
Links is of mixed race, like Obama, but he doesn't believe Obama has a problem with white voters. "Because my dad is white and he's middle class and he's voting for Obama," he tells me.
Next to Links is Erika Unruh, 20, a sophomore studying education. She tells me her Republican grandmother in Happy Valley, Oregon, is voting for Obama. "She thinks he has a fresh look," Unruh says.
Does Obama have a problem with white voters?
"I really don't think it's going to be that much of an issue... I would like to think we've moved beyond that."
Further along the grass I meet Kelsey Schopp, 20, a sophomore in international studies. I ask her about Clinton's recent contention that she's more viable, in part, because she does better than Obama among white Americans.
"I've heard that," Schopp says. "But she definitely doesn't have the young vote. Everyone I talk to our age is into Obama."
This gets at one of the foundational assumptions underpinning the blasé attitude that the college students seem to have about Obama's standing among rural white voters. The students firmly believe that there are more people like them than there are people like, say, Philip Frisby, the man making his decision based on a smear e-mail he received.
And this is a fine assumption—in the context of the Democratic nomination fight. If there were not more Democratic activists and primary voters who think like the Eugene college kids than there were Democrats who think like the Jackson County Clinton supporters, then Obama would not be about to clinch the nomination.
The point that Clinton has been trying to make, with an increasing bluntness, is that this ultimately is not about the Democratic primary but about the general election. And if Obama can't bring the entire Democratic Party with him into the general election—the Democrats of Jackson County included—then he's going to have a hard time beating McCain.
It's a point with some validity, but maybe not as much as Clinton suggests. In the Democratic primary, delegates are generally awarded proportionally—according to a candidate's percentage of the vote in a given state. This means, for example, that even if Clinton loses Oregon, she'll pick up a few delegates based on the votes of people in places like Jackson County. But in the general election, each state (and its electoral-college votes) goes to the Republican or the Democrat on a winner-take-all basis. That means Obama could counteract any defections from rural white Democrats by running up his vote totals among other constituencies—minority voters, young people, those dreaded urban elites. Historically, Democrats haven't needed to win every single last white person in America to capture the White House. Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, the last two Democratic presidents, won without a majority of the white vote. Same for Al Gore in his popular-vote victory in 2000.
Still, Obama gets that it would best for him, especially in swing states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio (which he lost to Clinton in the primaries), to have as many white voters with him as possible. So when he addresses the thousands of supporters assembled on the University of Oregon quadrangle, he makes an effort to answer concerns about his patriotism. This is not a crowd that needs to be convinced that Obama is a patriot, but it never hurts to repeat a talking point—or test it out in friendly territory.
"I do want to just end by telling you about myself," Obama says as he's wrapping up his remarks. "Because it appears that the Republicans are intent on making this campaign about me—whether I wear a flag pin, my bowling score, my eating habits, the offensive remarks of a former pastor—that's what they want to make this campaign about. And so I want to just close by reminding you of why I do this and a little bit about myself."
He continues: "I was born to a teenage mother. My father left when I was 2, so I was raised by a single mom and my grandparents. And they came from small towns in Kansas. They grew up during the Great Depression. And they didn't have much of anything. And when World War II started, my grandfather joined the army and went to Europe and fought in Patton's army, and my grandmother stayed back working on a bomber assembly line while she also looked after the new baby they had had...."
You can see where this is going. This is an American story, a white story (in that it only explores the white side of Obama's family tree), the most America-centric retelling of Obama's family history that he's done to this date.
"...And when my grandfather came back, his government, the United States government, said, 'You know, it makes sense for us to invest in young men like this who fought for us. And make sure that not only are we allowing them to succeed, but also that we're creating a middle class that will lift up the whole country. And so he was able to get a college education on a GI Bill."
Message: Obama is also the grateful product of progressive, enlightened, liberal investments made by his country decades ago.
"Here's the thing," he continues. "When people ask me about my patriotism, when they ask me why I'm doing this, I try to explain to them, I'm doing it because that story is not just my story, it's your story. It's the American story. It's that idea that each generation successively is able to work a little bit harder, work a little bit better, to make life better for the next generation—and the government is a partner in this process. That's why I love this country. That's why you love this country. Because if you really try, you can make it in this country. And that's the American dream that we are going to preserve for the next generation. But I need your help doing it."
The crowd is screaming, but I am wondering: Will this work? Will it reach the Clinton supporters I met in Jackson County? Will they listen?
Clinton would argue that the answer is no.
The question is why she's still making this argument so loudly and so long past the point where it could realistically make a difference in her fortunes. Is she trying to create a self-fulfilling prophecy that hurts Obama so that she can run again in 2012? Is she trying, by continuing to hit him with this, to create a bargaining chip that she can trade in for the VP slot or for help from Obama in paying down her more than $20 million in campaign debt? Is she just completely convinced that she's right, he's fatally flawed, and it's worth hoping that he'll be run over by a truck (metaphorically or actually) before the primary season is over?
Or is it something less complicated?
As that Clinton event at the Jackson County Fairgrounds was finishing up, a familiar face walked by the press area—a friend from college who now travels with the senator. He looked great for having been in three states in one day, and after a few minutes of catching up he told me to grab my stuff and come with him.
We walked to the back of the arena, songs like "American Girl" and "Don't Stop Believing" playing on the loudspeakers. My friend nodded at a Secret Service agent and then the two of us were walking under the risers that had formed Clinton's backdrop, into a "greenroom" draped in blue cloth and filled with local law-enforcement officers in their dress uniforms, probably waiting for a picture.
Through a curtain, across a short stretch of concrete, and then, with my friend as my escort, I was suddenly inside the bubble of Secret Service protection that was surrounding Clinton as she worked the rope line. Because of the late hour, Clinton had promised the crowd she would answer their questions one on one rather than doing a Q&A, and my friend wanted me to hear what people say to Clinton as she presses the flesh. This is something people don't see and don't understand, he was telling me: the intensity of Clinton's connection with her supporters, the absolute firmness of their conviction that she should go on.
It was true. Inside the bubble with Clinton, all I heard were older women with misty eyes thanking her, older men telling her to press on with the campaign no matter what, younger men and women saying they couldn't wait to have her as their president. For several days before the event, the pundits had been declaring the race over and Clinton's chances nil—but these voters either hadn't heard or didn't care. Yes, they were almost all white. But their attraction to her was obviously about more than simple distrust of Obama. Clinton would sign things—copies of her book, scraps of paper, campaign signs, a copy of an e-mailed letter to the editor complaining about Clinton's treatment in the press—and then she would lean in to answer questions and I would lean in behind her, just a foot or so away, trying to hear the exchange above the cheers and the music.
The first question I heard was from a young man asking about gay marriage (Clinton explained she supports civil unions). There was another question about violent video games, another about health-care funding, and then it was mostly gift giving and people pleading with her to stay in the race. She received a sticker to put on her car that would identify her as part of the Holy Ghost Racing Team. She smiled. She was handed packages, letters, a necklace. She laughed easily, shook hands warmly.
"Can I shake hands with you?" a woman asked gently. "God bless you."
"Thank you for hanging in," said a young man in a blue shirt. "I hope you win, I really do."
It's hard to describe the blast of supportive emotion that was directed at Clinton wherever she turned. We were making our way around a cordoned-off circle that surrounded the stage she'd used for her speech, and she was soaking it up, no longer the self-consciously straight-shooting and unflashy persona that she presents onstage as a contrast to Obama's soaring oratory.
Instead she was at ease, listening, laughing, and signing everything in sight, "Hillary."
She didn't seem in a hurry to leave. I wouldn't have wanted to leave, either. It was all praise and support and good wishes in the bubble. It was lovely. It was another world.