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Gary Younge
The two Roanokes

There are two Roanokes: Roanoke City and Roanoke County. The city has a small market area which is just the right side of twee. Art galleries and a coffee shop, some bars, restaurants, museums a diner, stores selling knick knacks and stalls selling local produce. Only the mouse infestation in the city market building casts an unfortunate blight on an otherwise dainty, village feel. Beyond this small space the city (which is actually a county unto itself) spreads out in all directions, 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, affluent and white, the north-west is black, the north-east more of a mix. If there are no-go areas nobody has told me not to go there. There have been 11 murders in town this year - far more than last year but with the average range. The police have a saying here. "If you're going to get killed in Roanoke you're going to have to work at it for a while."

The county climbs up to the Catawba mountains to its north-west and the Blue Ridge Mountains as its border to the south or heads south through the valley past Valhalla vineyards. In either direction you have a staggering drive with trees pregnant with leaves, ready to give birth to a staggering autumn. Small roads that snake up mountains, spawning even smaller roads that often lead to dead ends. Houses are set back into woodland; street names like Harbor wood, Wildwood and Timberview leave little doubt about the historical preoccupations of the area. There is nothing to see here but the view.

Topographically the difference between city and county is not stark. As you drive away from the market things get sparse, start to incline and then, 15 minutes later, you are in a different place.

But politically and demographically it could not be more clear. The city is Democrat with a black population twice the national average. In last year's city council elections the Republicans didn't even bother putting up a candidate. In the last presidential election it went narrowly for Kerry 52-46. The county is Republican with a black population half the national average. In 2004 it went heavily for George Bush, 65-35. That makes the city a tiny island in a sea of rural Republicanism. To get to the next nearest county to vote Democrat you would have to travel three hours 45 minutes to the west and two hours to the south or north.

Culturally and economically the city may dominate the county; geographically the county completely surrounds the city.

In this regard, Roanoke is fairly typical. The picture red states and blue states reasonably describes the nation's electoral map in terms of presidential politics. But for politics in general the most blatant division is not between states and regions but between the cities and rural areas within them. All of the 32 cities in the US with populations over 500,000 voted Democrat in 2004, even though more than half are in Republican states. On the night when anti-gay amendments were passed all over the country, Dallas in Texas elected an openly lesbian, Hispanic, Democrat as sheriff. Click on any state on this map and you need only go to the deepest blue to find the biggest city.

If you're in a liberal in a city like Portland, Atlanta or St Louis this may not play too much with your mind. Surrounded by so many like-minded people you can afford to believe that the rest of the world has gone crazy. But in a city as small as Ronoake the fear is that those around you might not share your assumptions, rather than the other way around.

When Terry McAuliffe came to talk on Tuesday many of the questions expressed a genuine fear that Republicans had better talking points. They kept asking how to counter Republican friends who said this or that until at one stage McAuliffe asked one of the questioners, if she had any Democratic friends. Anna Robertson, who runs the Pop's Ice Cream and Soda Bar in town, says she overheard some patrons whispering about their support for Obama at the counter until they spotted they Obama poster and then said out loud. "Oh, it's okay. They have an Obama poster." What did they think was going to happen? She wasn't really sure. When you ask black voters whether whites will vote for Obama they say "they should". When you ask white Democrats many confess they don't know.

This timidity, which others have also pointed out, seems strange for two reasons. First, there is far more enthusiasm for Obama than McCain in this area. In the city there are Obama yard signs all everywhere. Two weeks ago Katherine Devin held a Barack Obama Bake-a-rama sale and raised $16,000. Tonight she is holding an art sale with local artists donating work. During an hour-long drive around the county I saw one yard sign and three bumper stickers. Though they love Palin, events for McCain here are few and far between. Neither the city nor the county voted for him during the primaries.

Secondly, even if being a Democrat in Roanoke City feels rather isolating, this is nonetheless a good time to be a Democrat in Virginia. In the last three years the Republicans have lost the governorship, a Senate seat and the state senate. They are about to lose another Senate seat. Most pertinently they are not only having to contest Virginia for the first time in more than 40 decades - they are now considered to be losing here for the first time since the election started and and are sinking pretty much everywhere else in the country.

The Republicans here feel anything but bullish. At a gathering of volunteers in a swanky downtown loft apartment earlier this week they were concerned about the imminent advent of socialism through Obama and the redistribution of wealth (the bail-out should take care of that by redistributing more from the poor to the rich). "[Obama's] message of change is going to be received very well whether it should or not," said Josh Johnson, who was worried that voters will "throw the baby out with the bath water".

But there is something in the Democratic psyche that dares not believe. It's not just about this time. And it's not just about race (although it is a large unknown factor). On some level it's about being a Democrat and feeling, mistakenly or not, that you have won the argument and lost the election. That the Republicans have some hidden weapon, dirty trick, underhand scheme to steal the show just before the curtains go up. The are haunted by the ghosts of Katherine Harris, Wilder and Willie Horton all coming down the pike in Swift boats. They keep chanting "Yes we can" but deep down many feel: "I wonder if we might."

Additional reporting by Daniel Nasaw

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