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Gary Younge
No more need to whisper as Democrats are finally out and proud

Sam, the hotel waiter, wasn't at breakfast yesterday morning. For the three weeks I have been in Roanoke we have talked politics together over the buffet most days.

But yesterday was different. Barack Obama was coming to town, and Sam was going to be there. "I've got to go," he said. "That's going to be our next president."

All over Roanoke people were making preparations. Meghan, an Obama volunteer, asked me what I thought she should wear. Students at Patrick Henry high school were discussing taking the day off. Three hours before Obama's scheduled appearance, hundreds of people were queuing in the rain. It seemed like almost everybody in town wanted to be there.

It is a stark change from the day I arrived at the end of last month. Back then, the Dow index opened at 11,139, Obama and John McCain were tied in the polls in the state, and most local Democrats were still in the closet.

Roanoke sits like a tiny Democratic island in a sea of staunch Republican waters. Culturally and economically the city dominates the region; but politically it is completely surrounded. Just three weeks ago, Obama supporters in a nearby town were asking the local Democratic campaign organiser not to reveal their affiliations publicly for fear of being ostracised.

At Pop's Ice-cream and Soda Bar, patrons discussed their support for Obama in hushed tones until they spotted an Obama sign on the popcorn machine. "Oh, it's OK," one said out loud. "They have an Obama poster."

When you asked black people if they thought whites in the state would support a black candidate they responded with a lengthy pause, and then equivocation.

"They should," said one woman after what seemed like an age. "If they're paying attention."

"But do you think they actually will?" I asked. Pause. "I don't know," she said.

As I prepared to leave the town yesterday, the Dow was down 25%, Obama was up in Virginia by 5% and Democrats were out and proud as Obama addressed a capacity crowd at the local civic centre.

This gathering in confidence has been slow but definite. There was an art auction, Fine Art to Elect a Fine Man, which raised $4,100. Last weekend Bill Clinton visited the town. One night this week, more than 30 new volunteers showed up to the opening of a new campaign office just outside Roanoke.

And, yesterday, the man himself - the first visit from a presidential candidate to Roanoke since JFK in 1960. In contrast, Republicans are still waiting for a high-profile visit. And it's not clear that they would be overjoyed to see McCain anyway. Most of the people I spoke to at a Republican vice-presidential debate-watching party had not voted for McCain in the primaries, but had been energised by the nomination of Sarah Palin.

Hard fight
"Republicans were OK with McCain, but not excited," explained James Mixon, sporting a badge saying "Sarah!" with the words "McCain and Palin" much smaller underneath.

"He's come on strong since then and by nominating Palin he's indicated to conservatives that he's serious."

Republicans are not used to fighting this hard in Virginia - a state that has not voted Democrat in more than 40 years. One man confided that he believed McCain could not win the presidency if he didn't take the state.

Roanoke is a pretty town, sitting in a valley between the Appalachians and the Blue Ridge mountains, divided by route 581 from north to south, the railroad tracks from east to west and by race and class throughout.

Crudely speaking, the south-east is poor and white, the south-west is affluent and white, the north-west is black, and the north-east more of a mix.

The same things that dominate the national political conversation play out locally, only differently. Economically, the area has never experienced the highs or lows of the national booms and busts. But they are still feeling it. The food bank has seen a 9% increase in those seeking assistance. Last week the state announced it would axe 1,400 jobs. The week before the nearby university, Virginia Tech, raised its tuition fees by 11%.

Healthcare is also a big issue here. Once a railroad town, Roanoke is now dominated by the healthcare giant Carilion. Around 40% of the judgments in Roanoke general district court since 2003 have been brought by Carilion, chasing people who cannot pay their medical bills.

David Crimmins is one of them. He was treated for a herniated disc 10 years ago and ended up with a $5,000 bill. Crimmins, who earns $15,000 a year, did not show up to court to challenge Carilion's action.

"I didn't see the point," he said. "They're going to do whatever they want anyhow." The debt to Carilion was deducted from his wages until the company finally relented.

The hospital is also deducting owed money from his sister's wages and his mother's pay packet. So many are the debt collection actions before the court that it sets aside one day a week just to deal with healthcare. They call it Carilion day.

Otherwise, Democrats here are more likely to talk about the war, and Republicans more about tax, socialism and guns. With the registration deadline past, Democratic areas have seen at least double the increase in new voters compared with Republican areas. The task now is to get them out.

Mood shift
And in some quarters, excitement at the possibility of Obama's election has been tinged with a sense of alienation from his campaign. Leaders in the black community believe the young, white out-of-town staffers are ignoring their local knowledge and connections which could result in an under-performance of the black vote. African Americans comprise a quarter of the city and a fifth of the state - Obama cannot win the city or the state without them.

"The older crowd just don't connect with a 20-year-old white person telling a 50-year-old black person what to do," said Onzlee Ware, the Virginia House delegate for Roanoke. "Especially how to run their own communities. And then they get discouraged and go back to their communities."

Ware said there was time to turn things round by election day. If there was a doubt in his mind about Obama winning, he was not showing it.

It's a mark of the mood shift these last three weeks. The pauses are shorter. The polls show the Democrat nomination up. And yesterday lunchtime there were no whispered conversations at Pop's. The owners had shut up shop and gone to see Obama.

Onzlee Ware, delegate to the Virginia legislature

Ware is the most senior black politician in town. He is convinced that Obama will win. He said: "The thing I like about this campaign is that America has said that there's an entire America. Not just a white male America. But a black America and a female America."

Chelsea Shinneman, Obama volunteer

Shinneman is not so much a volunteer for Obama as an evangelist for him. She devotes pretty much every waking hour when she's not working to the campaign, so much so that her voicemail message also gives the Obama
office number.

David Crimmins, painter

David Crimmins, a painter, lives with his girlfriend, Melissa Hicks, who has never left Virginia, and their two boys. They want McCain to win. "He's got the experience," he says. Hicks says she does not know why she does not like Obama but it is not because he is black.

Anna Robertson, owner of Pop's Ice-cream and Soda Bar

Robertson sends both her children to the local school, where half the pupils are black. "People would ask me how I felt about my kids going to school in Roanoke as though the schools were really bad. The racial element of it is always unspoken. But it's there."

This article was amended on Thursday October 23 2008. The accidental removal of a zero led us to say that Virginia had not voted for a Democratic president for more than four years. That should have been 40 years. This has been changed.

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