Oklahomans stand firmly Republican

OKLAHOMA CITY -- It's hard to feel the economic pinch rattling the rest of the country in the marble-floored halls of the Penn Square Mall in this city.

Shoppers carry overstuffed bags from Macy's, J. Crew and Build-A-Bear Workshop. Hungry visitors lunch at a "sushi station" in the middle of a bustling food court. Money flows from wallets to chain-store registers.

Thanks to the recent energy boom, life outside the mall is equally good. Unemployment in the state is at 4%, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics — one of the lowest rates in the nation — and house values are actually going up.

But Oklahomans have seen such good times turn bad before.

Economic turmoil "hasn't gotten to us yet. But we know it will," Jeff Bingham, 42, an accountant and registered Republican, says as he sits outside Macy's waiting for his wife and two daughters to return from a shopping mission.

When voters here speak their mind on Nov. 4, that voice is expected to be resoundingly Republican.

In a survey taken Oct. 4-5, by TVPoll.com, Sen. John McCain, the Republican hopeful, showed a staggering 37-point lead over Democratic rival Sen. Barack Obama. Oklahoma has seven electoral votes at stake.

Despite a Democratic governor and rifts among local Republican leaders, Oklahoma remains staunchly Republican, fueled by government mistrust and a politically active evangelical Christian base — estimated at about 57% of the electorate — says Keith Gaddie, a University of Oklahoma political science professor.

Oklahomans' distrust of government and corporations is rooted in the Dust Bowl years of the Great Depression, the oil bust of the 1980s and the more recent flight of corporations such as Halliburton and Conoco, he says.

"Big, private institutions leave Oklahoma," Gaddie says. "And government makes promises and doesn't deliver."

A desire for less government and lower taxes will pull most of the state toward McCain, says Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, a Republican. Obama is viewed as too liberal and too willing to bolster government programs to stand a chance, he says.

"People in Oklahoma don't wake up every morning wondering what the government is going to do for them," he says. "Barack is not the type of Democrat who could do well here."

Moore, 12 miles south of Oklahoma City, is a stronghold of the conservative evangelical base. Storefront Baptist churches line its streets like convenience stores and McCain-Palin yard signs far outnumber the occasional Obama-Biden sign.

Moore resident Wayne Friesen says he never before involved himself in politics. But last month, he signed up with the Cleveland County GOP office to help bolster Republicans.

Friesen says he was unhappy with the $700 billion bailout plan approved by Congress and the White House. He would expect to see more government intervention under an Obama administration, he says.

Lowering taxes and "not surrendering in Iraq" also are top issues for him, he says. "If you give Democrats total control, it's going to be a freefall in this country," says Friesen, 60, wearing a T-shirt with the message: "Freedom Is Not Free — 2008." "It's going to change this country. And it's change we don't want," he says.

One of the few pockets where Obama's popularity has surged is on college campuses, says David Boren, University of Oklahoma president and a former U.S. senator and Oklahoma governor. An online survey last month by the student newspaper, TheOklahoma Daily, showed that OU students preferred Obama 2-to-1 over McCain — the first time in memory the students have openly backed a Democratic presidential candidate, Boren says. The Obama enthusiasm underscores a generational shift that is nudging Oklahoma to a more centrist political stance, he says. With the price of oil on the decline and Oklahomans looking for innovative ways to sustain their economy, that shift will accelerate, he says.

"I think we're in the midst of a sea change," says Boren, a Democrat who has endorsed Obama. "It's a generational shift in leadership. … Ten years from now, Oklahoma is going to be a state in the middle, with a growing number of independents, and neither party will be strongly dominant."

For now, Oklahoma remains a state where Republicans dominate and Democrats tend to be conservative. At the state fair last month, the Oklahoma County Republican Party sold buttons and T-shirts to help raise money for the campaign. Their best seller: a button emblazoned with the message "Another Democrat Voting for Sarah Palin."

"Without measure, this has been one of the most exciting presidential campaigns," says Pam Pollard, county party chairwoman. "Some people are excited about John McCain. Some are absolutely excited about (GOP vice presidential candidate) Sarah Palin. The rest are just anti-Obama."