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In Johnson's Footsteps, McCain Finds Republicans

By Juliet Eilperin
INEZ, Ky. -- Greeted with whoops and cheers by a crowd in a packed courthouse here this morning, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) pledged to help small rural communities that have been largely overlooked by national politicians.

While McCain paid tribute to the fact that President Lyndon B. Johnson had journeyed to this tiny town 44 years earlier, to announce the War on Poverty, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee rejected the traditional government programs that Johnson and many Democrats have advocated for years.

"Government has a role to play in helping people who through no fault of their own are having a hard time. But government can't create good and lasting jobs outside of government," he told the crowd. "It can't pay lost wages. It can't dig coal from the earth. It can't buy you a house or send all your kids to college. It can't do your work for you. And you've never asked it to."

Instead, McCain touted his plan to cut taxes for corporations, arguing that approach will do more to spur job creation across the country, along with federal incentives for companies to provide high-speed Internet access to remote areas. "Government should accurately identify areas where the market truly is not working and provide companies that are willing to build the information infrastructure to serve these areas incentives like tax reductions and more generous depreciation," he said, prompting applause.

And unlike the other national politicians who have come to Appalachia once, never to return, McCain insisted he would come back to town if he becomes president. "I will not make this my last visit to Inez," he said, sparking another round of applause. "If I'm elected, I will come back here in the course of my administration, hold another town hall meeting, and invite you to hold me accountable for the decisions I have made and the promises I have sworn to keep."

Inez, which is home to the Republican National Committee chairman Mike Duncan, is overwhelmingly Republican. But voters from throughout eastern Kentucky came to hear McCain speak, and several of them said they had yet to decide who they would vote for as president. Many said they wanted to learn more about where McCain stood on issues such as coal and the economy.

Ernay Goble, who attends Marshall University an hour away in Huntington, W.Va., but still comes home every weekend, said she wants to support a candidate who backs the use of coal more than Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). "We know Barack Obama is against coal," said Goble, a Republican. "If they don't have coal, there's no jobs around here."

McCain said he would back federal money for research and development into sequestering the greenhouse gas emissions generated by coal production, saying that he knew Appalachia sat on a tremendous coal reserve, "But we have to make sure we can make clean coal technology affordable and available. We need to have a careful balance between protection of our environment and exploitation of our natural resources."

Few voters here said they were eyeing Obama. The audience's hostility toward him was evident when it gave a standing ovation to a state senator who asked McCain what he thought of the Democrat's comment about voters who cling to religion or guns, adding that when it came to statements like that, "I think it reflects the comments of someone who doesn't understand this neck of the woods."

McCain made a point of saying that many of the people Obama was referring to chose to defend the U.S. after suffering through the Great Depression. "Yes, I think those are elitist remarks, to say the least," he said.

For the most part, voters said they were deciding between McCain and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.). Lisa Waller, who grew up in Inez and now lives in Winchester, Ky., said she was looking for a way to return to her hometown.

"I can't come back because there's no jobs here," Waller said. "You can leave the hills, but the hills never leave you. My family's here, my heart's here."

Waller, a Democrat who opposes the war in Iraq, said Clinton's recent comments have appealed to her but she still had not made up her mind. "She has shown more of a connection to regular people," she said, adding that while she liked McCain's comments on education and health care, she remains concerned about his support for the war. "He had me up until he talked about the troops. That's a huge thing for me."

Asked about the economy, McCain said he believed the country was in a recession. "The reality is, and I don't have to tell you here, American families are hurting," he said. Taking direct aim at Clinton, he questioned her health care proposal and said, "I don't think anyone who wants bigger government regulation and higher taxes has any real understanding of economics and the economy."

Noting that Americans pay 18 cents per gallon in federal taxes on every gallon of regular gas, McCain told the audience he wants to provide a holiday for those taxes between Memorial Day and Labor Day, prompting another round of applause from the audience. He mocked those who have criticized his gas tax proposal, saying, they would prefer to spend the money on pork-barrel projects such as Alaska's Bridge to Nowhere, "And some of those people who are complaining are driving around in chauffeured limousines anyway."

When a questioner asked McCain how his "personal faith" would be part of his presidential decision making, the senator recalled how he relied on his faith in God as a prisoner of war during Vietnam.

"My faith has been a vital part of my life in many ways," he told the questioner. "We can't always do it ourselves."

That emphasis on faith pleased several Republicans in the audience, who said they backed McCain because of his support for traditional values.

Tony Skeans, Inez's first assistant prosecuting attorney, said McCain's "hands off" rhetoric resonated with local residents. "Mountain people are proud people, and we like to take care of our business," Skeans said. "We want the federal government to help us the best it can, but we don't want it to tell us what to do with our guns or our religion."

"That's the truth," chimed in Boone Mahon, the Martin County jailer, who was sitting beside Skeans.

By Web Politics Editor  |  April 23, 2008; 12:47 PM ET
Categories:  John McCain  
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