By Tim Shipman in Washington
Last updated: 8:48 PM BST 24/05/2008
He speaks with an accent as thick as treacle, he has a confederate flag for a bedspread and one of his close friends played Cooter in the Dukes of Hazzard, the ultimate tribute to redneck America. But Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, a self-described “Scots-Irish hillbilly”, may just be the man to make Barack Obama’s White House dreams come true.
The Democratic presidential frontrunner suffered another landslide defeat to Hillary Clinton last week in the Kentucky primary, further proof of his failure to win over working class white voters in the Appalachian mountain region, whose support he will need if he is to beat Republican John McCain in November’s election.
Mr Obama has lost the hill country vote to Mrs Clinton by wide margins in a swathe of states from the Carolinas, north through Virginia and West Virginia and into Pennsylvania and Ohio, all key election swing states.
As the Democratic Party’s leading strategist on rural affairs, Mr Saunders believes Mr Obama should ignore those who say a black man can never woo what he calls the “Bubba” vote, when a little light barn dancing might do the trick.
“I think it’s a bunch of crap,” he told The Sunday Telegraph with characteristic relish. “People ask: ‘What do you say to these people who won’t vote for a black man’. I say: ‘To hell with them’. They are going to vote for a Republicans anyway.”
Instead, Mr Saudners says that if Obama is to win, he will need to emulate Mark Warner and Jim Webb, white Democrats who won senate seats in Virginia, the gateway to the South.
Mr Saunders – nichnamed Mudcat because he enjoys fishing the mudflats near his home in Roanoke – ran both of those campaigns.
“You must respect our culture,” he said. “If you show disrespect for rural culture, we ain’t going to vote for you; it’s just that simple. “He needs to go see Bubba and be himself. Mark Warner did it in 2000 and won in Virginia. Mark said clearly: ‘I’m not from your culture, but your culture is cool and I’m having fun with it.’
“You could take Mark Warner to a barn dance and he might get up there and look stupid, but I tell you what: a lot of people liked him because they could tell that he was enjoying himself.”
Mr Obama alienated many poor rural white voters with his ill-judged comments about how they are clinging to God and guns in times of economic hardship.
Mr Saunders believes it is not too late for Mr Obama to turn the corner, so long as he ignores “what I call the Metropolitan Opera wing of the party” – those Democrats who think that “down here we go to meetings at night and talk about who we’re going to lynch, and which gay guy we’re going to beat up.”
He says winning the support of those white voters who once backed Ronald Reagan is vital to Mr Obama’s hopes of victory over Mr McCain.
“Barack Obama is very capable of expanding the base with first time voters, particularly the young people,” he said. “That’s wonderful. But if we get a Reagan Democrat to come home, we get two votes because we just took one away from the Republicans and gave one to us.”
His word is highly valued in Democrat circles: he was recently called in to brief Democrat senators, and has worked for John Edwards, the former candidate for the nomination who has recently endorsed Mr Obama. The likely nominee is now making overtures to him as well.
He says: “I’m the best Democratic rural strategist in America. I’m also the worst because I’m the only one.” Mr Saunders thinks Obama must devote time, resources and a message that embraces his faith, respect for gun rights and tax breaks for companies that relocate in rural America, if he is to be successful.
“He’s going to have to get the right message. He’s going to have to be out in rural America so people can get to know him. He’s going to have to put the resources in. If he does that, he’s going to beat John McCain’s ass. And you can quote me on that.”
Mr Saunders also urges Mr Obama to resist what insiders say is now intensive lobbing by Bill Clinton to persuade Mr Obama to pick Hillary Clinton as his running mate.
Despite her success with blue collar voters, he thinks she would be a disaster. “The 51 per cent of Americans that don’t like her, they don’t come from New York, they don’t come from California or Illinois or Massachusetts – the traditional Democratic states. They’re all in red (Republican) states and swing states. I wouldn’t put her on the ticket.”