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Deep into the rabbit hole

When moderator Jim Lehrer asked presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama Sept. 29 what budget “priorities” each would “adjust” because of the pending $700 billion financial bailout, Obama, answering first, focused on federal programs he’d fix rather than fat he’d cut – energy, education, health care, rural broadband.

Lehrer then turned to McCain. The Arizonan looked straight into the television camera, then buried a knife between the shoulder blades of farmers. “I’d eliminate ethanol subsidies,” he said.

There was no second of all, no mention of corporate tax evasion, defence contractor fraud or even the $400-million-per-week war in Iraq. McCain’s outspoken disdain for ethanol made it the only “priority” either candidate offered for “adjustment.”

(Obama, from the second-largest corn-producing state in America, Illinois, long ago drank the ethanol Kool-Aid.)

Despite his well-known hatred of ethanol’s tax subsidies, it still took guts for McCain to slap farmers while 50 million, wanting-to-be-green Americans watched.

Politically, however, it was foolish, especially after several farm groups had warned him repeatedly to hold his ethanol ire or face losing rural support.

But the self-described maverick seemed to take pride in dropping the “e” bomb wherever he went.

“I begged his campaign to soften his stance,” says Fred Yoder, an Ohio farmer and the 2002-03 president of the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA), ethanol’s biggest booster.

“But every time I’d ask, he’d dug his heels in deeper. I began to take it personally.”

Shortly thereafter, Yoder, who calls himself a “free market social conservative,” helped form an ad-hoc, “corn growers for Obama” group with five other past NCGA presidents.

“It boiled down to a simple question for me,” says Yoder, a longtime Republican. “Is my party supposed to represent me or am I supposed to represent my party?”

Other farm leaders picked up the bat to bash McCain and boost Obama.

Twenty-two current or former state directors, commissioners and secretaries of ag from Maine to Montana, have endorsed Obama because the Illinoisan favours policies, they say, like “affordable health care,” fair access to markets, “transparency in prices” and, of course, “renewable fuels.”

Whoa, daddy. Farmers for Obama? We’re deep into the rabbit hole now.

Although these endorsements are adding never-before-heard voices to Obama’s choir, late-September poll results show McCain the clear choice of rural voters.

According to the Sept. 22 results of the Center for Rural Strategies poll, (at http://www.ruralstrategies. org) McCain holds a 10 percentage point lead, 51 to 41, over Obama among rural voters in 13 swing states.

But even that good news is relatively bad for McCain. Historically, Republican candidates need to pull huge majorities – upwards of 20 per cent – in rural areas of key swing states like Ohio, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri and Minnesota to beat Dems.

As such, McCain’s 10 per cent lead among rural voters this late in the race promises, at best, a second-place finish.

But politics is a strange game, says one veteran DC ag hand. “Just about the time you got it figured out,” he says, “along comes a Jimmy Carter.”

Or a John McCain. He had a deadlock on the farmer vote in crucially important swing states – even with his votes against the 2008 Farm Bill – but he just had to poke ‘em in their ethanol-admiring eye.

Maverick indeed.

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