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Obama Plays Up Midwestern Roots in Kansas

Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, right, waves with Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., following a rally at Butler County Community College in El Dorado, Kan., Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2008. (AP).

By Alec MacGillis
EL DORADO, Kan. -- Dorothy, we're not in South Carolina anymore.

After winning a landslide victory in the Deep South on Saturday, partly by turning out historic numbers of African American voters on his behalf, Barack Obama arrived here today seeking to establish a connection of a different kind: with his heartland roots.

Obama's grandfather is from El Dorado (that's do-RAY-do to you) and Obama stopped in to remind a community college gym full of voters of that link, and to accept the endorsement of Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, the latest politician from a red state or swing state to back Obama. There was more than family nostalgia in the visit: Obama's campaign believes that it can hold its own on Super Tuesday, Feb. 5, partly by picking off voters and caucusgoers in a few conservative or swing states where Obama's national reconciliation message might play well. His speech at the gym was heavy with reunification rhetoric.

"We have been told for many years that we are becoming more divided as a nation. We have been made to believe that differences of race and region, wealth and gender, party and religion have separated us into warring factions; into red states and blue states made up of individuals with opposing wants and needs, with conflicting hopes and dreams," he said. "It is a vision of America that's been exploited and encouraged by pundits and politicians who need this division to score points and win elections. But it is a vision of America that I am running for president to fundamentally reject."

Obama invoked Sebelius as an exemplar of his philosophy. "She has shown America that the Democratic Party can run anywhere and win anywhere and lead anywhere as long as we're the party of change," he said. Sebelius, who delivered the Democrats' response to the president's State of the Union speech last night, returned the favor, saying that Obama has "Midwestern values, values that we know about. He got them from his grandparents and his mom. He understands how to bring people across party lines."

Obama's pitch in El Dorado bore many traces of his victory address in South Carolina Saturday night, including a repeat of his implicit shot at Hillary Clinton, that the election is "about whether we settle for the same divisions and drama that passes for politics today." But his presentation was markedly different from those on the trail in South Carolina, where he built a strong rapport with his raucous, giddy audiences by engaging in call and response patter, stressing topics like his church-going, and dropping into the regional vernacular here and there. ("In Washington, that's how they do," he'd said, mocking Beltway behavior.)

In Kansas, it was a different set of cultural connections -- references to his father's work on the local oil rigs, to his grandmother's work as a Rosie Riveter on a bomber assembly plant, to his mother's birth at Fort Leavenworth, and to his distant cousins who still live in the area, several of whom are campaigning for him and one of whom showed up today. ("Ruth was my grandfather's aunt," he said, only to be corrected by her. "No, my grandmother's first cousin. I knew I was going to screw it up. I've been going through my family tree here to figure it all out.")

Also in attendance was "Mr. Kearns," the class historian for Obama's grandfather's high school class of 1935, who brought some photos along with him. "He's kind enough not to tell stories about my grandfather. Because my understanding is he got in quite a bit of trouble in high school," Obama said. "But Mr. Kearns is discreet." Later, in talking about his plan to reform the credit industry, Obama inserted another plug for his audience: "Americans should pay what they owe -- that's a Midwestern value -- but they should also pay what's fair, not just what's profitable for some credit card company."

There was, to be sure, an element of overstatement involved in Obama's effort to capitalize on the Kansas connection -- Obama's grandparents left Kansas while Obama's mother was still young, making stops in Texas, Seattle and elsewhere before landing in Hawaii, where Obama was born, and he himself had never been to El Dorado prior to today. But members of the audience said they expected that Obama's local link would help him, once people learned about it. Several said they'd only learned of the link between their home state and the Illinois senator with the exotic name from an article in the newspaper a few days before.

"This is Obama country, baby," said Sharon Carr Burnett, a teacher from Wichita, less than an hour away. "They call him a native son."

By Web Politics Editor  |  January 29, 2008; 6:13 PM ET
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