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US Voters Offer Opinions about Barack Obama, His Race, and Its Impact on the Upcoming Election

[REVISED – 10/13/08]

Currently, US voter polls show democratic presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama leading his rival, Republican Senator John McCain. If the polls are borne out on election day, Obama would become the nation's first black president. But surveys cannot determine whether -- in the privacy of the voting booth -- Americans will ultimately make a decision based on race. In this second of a five part feature series, Voice of America’s Chris Simkins examines voter perceptions across the country and asks Americans if the United States is ready for a black president.

In March, Barack Obama spoke about his race and its possible impact on the presidential election. He was referring to the Democratic party primaries: "Despite the temptation to view my candidacy through a purely racial lens, we won commanding victories in states with some of the whitest populations in the country."

Barack Obama won millions of votes from white Democrats during primary contests against Senator Hillary Clinton.

But in his continuing national campaign against Republican Senator John McCain, he hopes to win states that are traditionally Republican, like Virginia and West Virginia. And states like Pennsylvania that are traditionally Democratic but where white working class voters preferred Senator Clinton in the primaries. Many voters in these states indicate race will be a factor come November.

West Virginia is a southern state with a large white working class. In the town of Franklin, Steve Miller owns a hotel and restaurant. He says his community will not support Obama, "I don't think it is racist but they (West Virginians) are just not sure if they are ready for a black in office yet I think is the problem."

When Hillary Clinton defeated Obama in the West Virginia primary, a (ABC News / Washington Post) poll found that for two in 10 white voters, the candidate's skin color was a factor.

Ed Tallman is editor of Franklin's newspaper. He says he knows why West Virginians have a problem with Obama: "When a black man has political power, or when a black person has political power many small town West Virginians seem to believe that his policies will favor blacks rather than working class whites."

Eighty-four year-old Jeff Bowman owns a hardware store here. He believes America is ready for a black president, but he finds Obama lacking, "He doesn't have the experience. That is more detrimental to him (Obama) than the race."

Vesla Weaver is a professor at the University of Virginia. She has done extensive research on how voters react to candidates' skin color: "There is a strong pull of not looking racially biased of not appearing to make racially based decisions in this country. So when a voter is confronted with a black candidate and a white candidate there is an effect of wanting to not make a racially based decision."

Pennsylvania, a northeastern state, also has a large white working class. With more than 8 million registered voters, the state is crucial for Obama. Here too, Hillary Clinton defeated him in the Democratic primary.

Eighty year-old Lillian Kepler from Lewistown, Pennsylvania says her problem with Obama is not related to race: “… it isn't because he is black it is just that I do not think he has the qualifications that McCain has."

On college campuses, even in southern Republican states, Obama has been extremely popular with students. The University of Virginia is in Charlottesville. We asked some of the students whether they thought race would have an impact on the 2008 Presidential Election. Specifically we asked them if they thought America was ready to elect an African American as president. University student Jessie White says "I think a lot of people are ready and eager to put the past behind them and to really move forward and take bigger strides than they have in the past."

University of Virginia students Geoff Skelly and Chris Blank say race will be a factor in the election, but not for them. Geoff, a 4th year student, says "I think it is still going to be an issue for some people, I think it will be a very small percentage of the voters, maybe enough to turn the election, hopefully not."

And Chris says: "I sincerely feel that the people who are not going to vote for him because he is an African American were never going to vote for a Democrat anyway. "

VOA spoke to dozens of voters across the country. Most said America is ready to elect a black president. But political observers say gauging views on race can be difficult, in part because many hide their feelings. They say voters sometimes are not even aware that race is influencing them.