by Jim Tankersley
BRISTOL, Va. - There are two great economic drivers of this corner of Appalachian Virginia: car racing and coal. At first blush, an entrepreneur from the Washington, D.C. suburbs would seem as natural a fit here as, well, an African-American lawyer from the South Side of Chicago.
Mark Warner knew that when he launched his 2001 bid for Virginia governor - and he used it to his advantage. The man who would start Virginia's statewide Democratic win streak began his campaign not in the liberal-leaning Northern Virginia sprawl where he made his fortune, but in the rural areas Democrats had feared to trend in previous elections. He promised economic development for the region; as governor, he delivered.
"I was the cell phone guy from Northern Virginia," Warner - who co-founded the company that would become Nextel - reminded an adoring high school gymnasium crowd here this afternoon, "and you took a chance on me... We moved Virginia forward."
Warner returned to southwest Virginia to kick-off his latest political venture, a U.S. Senate run, earlier this year. But today he came not for himself, but to introduce the man he was endorsing for President of the United States - a man, he promised, who would also come through for rural Virginia.
Obama, Warner said, understands families and their struggles. He said Obama knows the importance of coal - which Obama has said he would support increasing as an energy source as an alternative to oil, but only if scientists can adequately "capture" the carbon gases that coal burning currently emits. He praised Obama's plan to wind down the Iraq war and help veterans when they return stateside.
"I'm asking you and all the people listening," Warner said, to "take the time and get to know this man. This is a good man. This is a man of deep faith. This is a man who has spent his life bringing people together."
It was an important and calculated pitch for Obama, as he renews his effort to sway working-class voters in swing states such as Virginia to support him in November.
Obama carried Virginia's primary easily over rival Hillary Clinton. But Clinton beat him by more than 2 to 1 in Bristol, and she carried most of the rural western half of the state. Struggles with working-class voters cost Obama more dearly in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia - all November battlegrounds.
Republicans say Obama won't play well in rural areas such as Bristol this fall.
"Barack Obama has called for a tax on coal, favors taxes that would drastically harm small businesses in Virginia, and voted in support of legislation that would have banned most privately held shotguns," said Republican National Committee spokesman Brian Walton. "It is hard to see how Obama's pro-tax, anti-second amendment views, coupled with his remarks in San Francisco that rural voters 'cling' to guns and religion, make him a fit for rural Virginia."
The Warner introduction figures to start a trend in those places of Obama enlisting local help to sing his praises. (Although similar help from Sen. Bob Casey in the primary wasn't enough to boost Obama to a victory in Pennsylvania.) Tonight Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) and Gov. Tim Kaine take their turns for Obama when he speaks in Northern Virginia.
In Bristol, Obama focused intently on economics and health care. He accepted a handmade maple walking stick from a 95-year-old man and joked "if members of congress don't pass my health care bill - I'll whup 'em. I'll whup 'em."
He channeled Warner - who had long since left the stage - in closing. "I need you to be my ambassadors," Obama said. "If you're willing to vote for me, if you're willing to give me a chance, then I promise you, we will win Virginia, we will win this general election and you and I together will change the country and change the world."