Politics & Government

In Alabama, McCain eyes unlikely targets

SELMA, Ala. — John McCain has a long way to go to convince Juanita Gibson of anything.

Gibson, who's African-American, stood Monday outside the auto shop where she works wearing a "March for Jesus" T-shirt and a black Goodwrench cap, eyeing a mostly white crowd gather across the street for the kick-off of McCain's "It's Time for Action" tour. It will take McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, to some of America's poorer precincts in an effort to show that he's a different kind of Republican.

Gibson pondered whether McCain had taken much action to help people like her. "Not as I know of," she concluded.

That sums up the challenge facing McCain as he tries to woo independent voters and perhaps even break the Democratic stranglehold on voters in places such as southwest Alabama's rural, poor Black Belt. Other stops on his tour this week include economically stressed Youngstown, Ohio; Appalachia in Kentucky; and the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

"It's unlikely his campaigning will change many votes," said Earl Black, a political scientist at Rice University who specializes in Southern politics. "He's going into a group that's probably the most loyal Democratic group in the country."

Indeed, Alabama's seventh congressional district, where McCain spent most of Monday, is 62 percent black, with a poverty rate of 24.7 percent. It went for Democratic nominee John Kerry by nearly 2-to-1over President Bush in 2004.

But, Black said, the trip likely will help McCain in a broader sense, as it reinforces the sense among voters nationally that he's a Republican with an independent streak, occasionally making common cause with Democrats.

Standing next to the Alabama River, the Edmund Pettus Bridge rising behind him, McCain lauded the 1965 civil rights workers who sought to cross the bridge to march to Montgomery, fighting for the right to vote and making Selma famous.

"They were people who believed in America, in the promise of America," McCain said. "And they believed in a better America. They were patriots, the best kind of patriots."

He lamented that better times have eluded so many.

"There must be no forgotten places in America, whether they have been ignored for long years by the sins of indifference and injustice, or have been left behind as the world grew smaller and more economically interdependent," McCain told his Selma audience, many of whom looked rather prosperous.

McCain called for easier access to credit for small businesses and using community colleges to retrain workers whose jobs have gone overseas.

Later, McCain toured Gee's Bend, a black hamlet essentially cut off for decades because county leaders canceled its ferry service (the ferry was reinstated in 2006). He bought three quilts from its famous lady quilters.

Twelve quilters then climbed aboard the Straight Talk Express with McCain, serenading him with spirituals, then clustering around him on a ferry trip across the Alabama River, singing much of the time. As they moved off the ferry, the elderly women swayed in a spiritual march, singing, "Tell me, how did you get your religion?"

It's a good question for McCain, who voted against creating the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday, a vote he's since said was wrong; who's the nominee of a party that built its Southern majority largely on the wedge issue of race; and who's that party's successor to Bush, the president who said he was a "compassionate conservative" but who many voters feel abandoned New Orleans in its time of need.

McCain wouldn't say whether the legacy of Bush or of the Republican Party would make it harder for him to connect with poor and black voters.

"The American people will judge who they want to vote for not necessarily by the past...but how that person is going to handle their future," McCain said. "Vision, motivation and plans in ways that we can improve people's lives."

James Marshall, a black Selma pastor, said he was impressed.

"Most of the time you think wealthy, money" when you think of Republicans, Marshall said. But, he added, McCain seems different: "He seems to care about people."

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