Page last updated at 01:04 GMT, Friday, 24 October 2008 02:04 UK

'Race question mark' over US town

By Dumeetha Luthra
BBC News, Uniontown, Pennsylvania


Fayette County residents on the race issue

"I'm not voting for Obama, he's black."

Charles is a registered Democrat in Uniontown, Pennsylvania.

"If it wasn't for Obama I would vote Democrat. Blacks just cause trouble, that's the taste I've got in my mouth."

Race is the question mark hanging over this election.

Barack Obama is ahead in the polls. There's a widespread feeling now that the election is his to lose.

But there is something that is worrying Democrats. How accurate are the polls? How many voters are saying they will vote for Mr Obama because they do not want to be perceived as racist?

Once they enter the polling booth will it be an entirely different story?

Simply put, how many people out there think like Charles but are not admitting it?

'Not from here'

Charles said the vast majority of his friends felt the same way as him.

Uniontown is a rural town in south-west Pennsylvania. Its countryside is breathtaking, particularly now as the leaves change their colour from green to gold to burnt red.

But the area is poor and unemployment is high. Traditionally it is staunchly Democrat - but race is an election issue.

Todd Hackley
Obama will get as many votes from the blacks, as he will not get from the whites
Todd Hackley
At a local restaurant a friendly waitress started chatting to us. The conversation turned to politics.

She shrugged, she was not even sure when the election was to be held, she could not pronounce Mr Obama's name.

"I like McCain because I can say his name, so I'll probably vote for McCain."

She was not well informed, but her views were clear.

"He's from Africa or something. I don't even know where he's from. I know he grew up here, but he's not from here. I think American presidents should be from America."

These are not isolated opinions - just not often voiced publicly.

In the primaries 12% of voters across the state said race was a factor - and that is close to Mr Obama's current lead in the polls here.

Recently, Congressman John Murtha had this to say about his home state: "There is no question that western Pennsylvania is a racist area".

He did, however, predict that Mr Obama would still win the state, and he later apologised for the remarks.

The polls show Mr Obama is ahead in Pennsylvania, which also has a Democratic governor and traditionally huge Democratic majorities in the major cities - Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

'A good show'

In Uniontown, of course I met Democrats who are voting for Mr Obama, and I also met a couple of Republicans who said they were voting Obama.

This is not about a town being racist, but rather how much the race issue is reflected in the polls.

Brandon Hafield
He tries to put a good show for the people, but I don't think he is American
Brandon Hafield
At a local hunting shop there were a variety of opinions. Registered Democrat Tom Currens said he would vote for the Republican candidate John McCain, but not because he had a problem with Mr Obama's racial background.

Todd Hackley, a registered Republican said he would vote for Mr McCain and had this to say on the race question:

"Race is an issue, it has to be, not that we want it to be. My thoughts are that Obama will get as many votes from the blacks, as he will not get from the whites.

"I do believe there are a lot of whites who won't vote for him because of the colour of his skin, but I believe there are a lot of blacks who will vote for him because of his colour."

Todd has always voted Republican and when I asked him if colour was an issue for him he said it might have been years ago, but not now.

Brandon Hafield said said he was undecided who to vote for, but when I asked if Mr Obama was a patriot he said no.

When I asked if he was American, he said: "I think he tried to be, I don't think he is, he tries to put a good show for the people, but I don't think he is."

I hate to think we would have racial prejudice entering into a campaign here, but I think perhaps we do
Russ Mechling

Local radio presenter Bob Fultz, who hosts a regular talk show, says prejudice is definitely present, even though few callers are willing to discuss it openly.

"White voters aren't saying what they really think, whether that's here in Fayette County or nationally. I had one caller who said he thinks Obama is Osama with plastic surgery."

However, Mr Obama has gained points for his perceived ability to handle the credit crunch - and Uniontown has its own financial woes.

Russ Mechling is a retired engineer who used to be the president of the local company Fayette Engineering. He is a registered Democrat who will be voting for Mr Obama.

"There is a little bit of a racial backlash, but I think it's becoming less and less as the economic situation gets worse and worse.

"I think that will probably cost McCain more votes than any other single factor."

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