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Low blows

  • Gavin Hewitt
  • 14 Oct 08, 04:08 PM GMT

TOLEDO, OHIO: Barack Obama is preparing in a hotel up the road for tomorrow's debate.

Moving around the country involves a series of casual encounters. We're sitting having breakfast and ZZ Top are here.

Barack Obama speaks at a rally in Philadelphia (image Ian Sherwood)What's curious is that none of these "casual" conversations ever touch on the candidates' economic plans. There's a reason for that. The financial crisis is moving so fast that it's leaving the candidates behind. Almost nothing they say now may have any relevance come January.

So no-one on the road gets into the detail of McCain's or Obama's plans. What they do talk about are the "low blows" of the campaign.

In Pennsylvania at the weekend, I was at two events with Barack Obama. When he mentioned John McCain's name, the crowd booed. It was instant, immediate. It seemed to me the "boo" of a ball game, tinged with a little irony. I did not detect any hatred.

Obama immediately told the crowd that he respected John McCain's service to his country but that he disagreed on the economy and on other issues. He added that we can disagree and still respect each other.

Last week at a Sarah Palin rally in Ohio, the feelings were different. Many of the people there detested Barack Obama. "Detest" is a strong word, but I felt their dislike of the Illinois senator was visceral. Nearly everyone I spoke to doubted his patriotism.

One conversation went like this: "Do you think Barack Obama is a patriotic American?" "No. No, nothing in his background indicates that." The man went on: "I think he's got too much Marxism and black power in his background."

The man, on camera, added a bit of analysis; he thought Obama was angry because he had some white blood in him.

Another woman told me: "I just believe he is not an American. I just think he's angry."

A younger woman had a poster with a picture of Adolf Hitler on it. Hitler's face had been replaced with that of Obama. We did not use this in our coverage because we did not think it was in any way typical of the Republican crowds. Yet the people around her did not challenge her.

An older man was explicit in that he thought "race" was an issue. But what caught my attention was "patriotism".

In our conversations, many of which were on camera, I struggled to find someone who felt Barack Obama was "patriotic".

I tried to nail down what lay behind this. Many people were disturbed by Obama's associations with the radical William Ayers and with his former pastor, the Rev Jeremiah Wright.

Yet I felt the concerns ran deeper than that. It was the fears of "otherness". Many of those we spoke to just felt he was not like them, he did not share their values. They spoke about lapel badges, saluting the flag and, above all, about the military. For some, being patriotic was about supporting the military.

I asked a question as to whether it was "patriotic" to oppose the invasion of Iraq. Some agreed - reluctantly, I thought.

These may be superficial encounters but the "boos" in Pennsylvania seemed different to the comments in Ohio.

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