|The Republican party has historically had strong support in rural America [EPA]
"I roamed the countryside searching for answers to things I did not understand."
Leonardo da Vinci
Right after the first McCain-Obama debate ended at the University of Mississippi, the thousands of reporters who had crammed themselves and all their fancy gear into the campus went flying out of the little university town of Oxford like they had a swarm of yellow jackets buzzing around their carefully coiffed, made-for TV hairdos.
I decided to stick around for a little while.
On a mellow autumn Saturday, there's no more pleasant place to be than the farmers market in Taylor, a few miles outside Oxford. It's kind of a major weekend event in such a small town. Kids were playing and running, neighbours were chatting and drinking coffee, and local growers were selling pumpkins, cucumbers and herbs.
At the market, I met Doyle Traylor, a spry 71-year-old in a white straw hat. Traylor makes a few dollars every week giving kids and families old-fashioned buggy rides.
An amiable and chatty man, Traylor regaled me with stories of his travels around the world during the 40 years he spent in the US army.
But he's a country man to the core. The financial crisis, the meltdown of those Wall Street banks and the woes of their fat-cat executives puzzles him, but doesn't bother him too much. "I don’t use credit cards myself," Traylor said proudly. "I don’t even own one. I always figure if I'm out of money, I'm out of money."
The talk turned to politics. While Traylor admitted he wasn't terribly enthusiastic about his choices, he plans to vote Republican in November. "I’m going with McCain and that ain't no secret," Traylor said.
"In my opinion he would be the best. I like a military background ... to me McCain is probably knowledgeable."
Compared to urban and suburban voters, rural Americans tend to be older, poorer, and less educated. They are a core constituency for the Republican Party, which relies on rural residents in states such as Ohio, Florida and all across the South to win presidential elections. The rural vote went overwhelmingly for George Bush in 2000 and 2004.
Guns are a big issue in rural America.
Linda Colley, who sells pickled peppers and homemade hot sauce off a card table at the farmers market, told me she fears Barack Obama would restrict gun ownership.
"He's more into gun control. More into taking the guns out of the hands of home owners and people who really need it," she said.
"I think it's more important that we are allowed to protect ourselves. Especially in the rural community where the sheriffs and the police force are at least 20 miles away."
Colley heartily approved of McCain's running mate, former small-town mayor Sarah Palin. (Note: these interviews were conducted before the vice-presidential debate in St Louis on October 2nd.)
"I like her. I like the way she stands up to people. I appreciate that she's a mom because I'm a mom and a grandma too," Colley said.
"Her experience is lacking in a few things, but I think she's a good balance for McCain. I think she gets it more as far as the common people, the rural people. She's been there."
In many - but not all - parts of rural America, religion is a powerful influence in people's lives. That is especially true in the South. One minister we talked to in Mississippi referred to the region around Oxford as "the buckle on the Bible Belt".
Even though rural voters are 20 per cent more likely to be poor than other Americans, economic concerns here often take a back seat to religiously influenced social issues.
The sway of religious values - specifically Evangelical Protestant Christianity - is one reason why opposition to abortion rights and gay marriage - positions traditionally championed by Republicans - trumps economic concerns in rural America during most election cycles.
On Sunday morning, I went to the First Baptist Church in Oxford and listened to pastor Eric Hankins preaching on God and politics.
The 11am service was packed with families. The choir sang traditional hymns, including What a Friend We Have In Jesus.
Hankins cited Abraham Lincoln as a person with all the qualities needed to be a great president - a somewhat surprising choice in a Deep South town that was burned to the ground by Union forces during the Civil War.
|Some rural residents remain suspicious of Barack Obama's religous background [EPA]
Hankins never came out and told the worshippers at First Baptist who they should vote for, instead urging them to look for qualities like steadfastness, courage, and grace in their next leader. It was possible to interpret his sermon as guidance to vote for either candidate - or for neither.
After the service, I talked with Hankins on the front steps of the church.
"I think social issues are at the top of the list for rural voters," he said.
"I don't believe in the separation of religiously informed values from public policy. Christianity is a world view. It's a way of seeing ultimate reality and essential values of life and human interaction so there's no way to separate that.
"You can't look it up in the bible, 'who should I vote for in this upcoming election'. But there are some parameters for the kind of men and women we choose, and the things that we stand for. For us as Baptists, as Southern Baptists those are going to be life, the sanctity of life, the sanctity of marriage as a union between a husband and a wife. Those things are going to stand at the core," he said.
A false but persistent whispering campaign, spread by right-wing blogs, internet chain letters and innuendo on conservative radio talk shows, maintains that Obama is a Muslim. The tale has hurt his standing with some church-going white rural voters.
Pastor Hankins says he has heard some of his congregation - "the particularly hard-shelled ones" - assert that Obama is not the Christian he says he is.
"He professes clearly to be a Christian so I don't have any reason to think it's not true," Hankins said.
But, he added: "That connection, however tenuous it may be, to Islam shows there is a level of concern. People aren't marching around saying 'he's a Muslim and he's not telling the truth about it'. But in light of our world situation and in light of what is going on geopolitically there is just some concern. And I would wonder if that mirrors a bigger concern of who this guy is. We just don't know a lot about him."
Small town and rural voters make up about one-fifth of the US electorate. A recent poll commissioned by the Centre for Rural Strategies shows McCain leads Obama by ten percentage points among rural voters in swing states.
But Obama has been campaigning hard for rural votes, stressing the sour economy.
Bill Greener, a Republican strategist, says McCain needs an even wider margin than what he has now.
"In 2008, it is critical that McCain get to a level of 15 points or so among rural voters in order to be able to obtain victory, in my opinion,” Greener said.
In Taylor, I met Lynn Hewlett, who owns the town's only restaurant, a wildly popular fried catfish parlour. He's an independent voter who says he has been thinking about Obama.
'Out of touch'
"I think that Obama would make a fine president. I think he can pull it off. I think he can handle it," Hewlett told me, leaning on the back of his pickup truck.
"The president label doesn't bother me, but the commander-in-chief label that goes with that bothers me. I don't think that the young man [Obama] is the kind of guy I'd like to see in charge of our military and to some degree our foreign policy."
|Many working-class Americans believe politicians do not keep their promises [EPA]
Like a lot of voters - rural, urban or in-between, Republican, Democrat or independent, Hewlett believes Washington politicians are out of touch with ordinary working Americans.
"I don't think that in recent memory we've had a presidential candidate in this country, of either party, either side, that really had a clue of what it's like to be an average guy - whether you're working for a factory in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, or ranching cattle or Wyoming, or trying to raise a cotton crop in Mississippi, or a fisherman on either coast,” Hewlett said in a disgusted tone.
Earlier, at the farmers market, Doyle Traylor told me he needed to get back to giving buggy rides. I thanked him for his time, and he paused to impart one more piece of genuine old-fashioned country wisdom: don't trust politicians.
"Both of them TALK a good thing," Traylor said, grinning.
"When they come here, they gonna say what we want to hear. But they go over yonder and to another place, and they gonna say what those folks want to hear."
That's one of the better descriptions of politicians I've heard in a while.