Rural Democratic strategist Dave "Mudcat" Saunders had spent much of the last few days turkey hunting out in the Roanoke, Va., area, on a stretch to the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountain known as Five Mile Mountain, so when I reached him on Saturday he hadn’t heard about the remarks Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., made about small town Americans.
"It’s Spring gobbler season," explains Saunders, a former strategist for former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., who helped Edwards reach out to what he called the Bubba vote.
A day later, Saunders — who earned his nickname bottom-fishing the Roanoke River — tells me that he’s certainly bothered by what Obama had to say, but he’s not sure what impact the comments will have.
When I ask how folks out in Roanoke are responding, Saunders says "It’s not been long enough for Sen. Obama’s remarks. People don’t — out in rural America — sit and watch cable news networks. Nor do they get on the Internet and go to the DailyKos or the Huffington Post.
"But once it gets out there it will move and move quickly," he says.
Saunders helped elect former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner and Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., and is something of an expert on Democrats reaching out to "NASCAR Dads," the white, working-class sometimes Southern men Democrats have had trouble winning in national elections.
"Eight years ago it was politically and culturally unacceptable for a white male to say he was a Democrat," Saunders says. "That’s changed a bit." Obama’s remarks could hurt him with these voters, Saunders says, not caring for Obama saying these voters "cling to guns or religion, or antipathy to people who aren’t like them."
"’People who aren’t like them,’" Saunders says. "I know Obama will say it doesn’t, but I don’t know if that had racial undertones. It comes off like that. It’s going to take some time to see if this has got legs. I think it could have huge legs."
That said, Saunders says he’s "not sure it’s gonna have the legs of that Bosnia deal," referring to Sen. Hillary Clinton’s oft-told, since-discredited story that in 1996 she landed in Bosnia amidst sniper fire.
Saunders says rural Americans are 19 percent of the population but constitute 27 percent of the casualties from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, referring to a recent study.
"I’ve heard several remarks in restaurants about that," he says. "Here in a small town, in rural America, there’s a high degree of patriotism."
"There’s a lot of veterans out here, it’s part of the culture, a lot of people go into the service.
"And have heard some veterans — neither Republican nor Democrat, just veterans, just regular guys, raise holy hell about Hillary and the Bosnia episode," Saunders says.
Vets don’t like it when people lie about war.
Whether Obama’s "small town" gaffe will surpass that mistake remains to be seen, Saunders says. "Barack Obama the ‘change’ candidate can obviously win. Barack Obama the inexperienced candidate can even win. But these latest remarks — he came off as anti-gun, and the religion part — we turn to religion when we’re bitter? That’s offensive — well, we’ll see what Hillary and the Republicans do with that."