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Biden's Friday in West Virginia

From NBC's Ron Allen

The nation's most senior senator, Robert C. Byrd, looks a bit frail these days -- but he remains quite feisty. On Friday, in the heart of Charleston, WV, he sat on stage in a wheelchair, with an appropriate-sized lectern and microphone in front of him, tucked next to the main podium, as Joe Biden made the Democratic ticket's first foray here for Barack Obama.

Until recently, the Mountain State seemed beyond reach.

Byrd sat flanked by the state's other Democratic heavyweights, Sen. Jay Rockefeller and Gov. Joe Manchin, a powerful united front trying to make a strong last minute case for Obama-Biden.

Byrd's voice was muffled, at times almost lost in the PA system, and difficult to hear as he read his remarks. Manchin helped by turning the pages. Seemingly unable to summon more volume, Byrd instead repeated the candidates' names -- and others he wanted to emphasize -- numerous times, to help drive his message. A well-placed holler helped too. As in, "my friend and colleague, Barack Obama, Whoa man! Yeah! Barack Obama... showed outstanding judgment when he asked Joe Biden! Joe Biden! Joe Biden to join the ticket." Byrd praised Biden as "no child of privilege" and someone who "knows how to work hard, earn a daily bread. And beans." Byrd punched the air with a somewhat shaky fist. The crowd loved him.

Could West Virginia be falling for Obama-Biden as well?

Obama and Biden have watched the polls narrow in a state that Obama was unable to connect with during the primary season; Hillary Clinton trounced him here by some 40 percentage points. It's among the country's poorest, oldest, least diverse, and least educated states. It's a heavily Democratic state President Bush won twice, the second time by a wide margin. It's the only state completely in Appalachia, where God and guns, family and flag can trump all else. And there's a historical quirk here that Clinton talked about again and again to make her case for the nomination -- that no Democrat has won the White House since 1916 without winning West Virginia. Yet another bit of political folklore that could change in 2008.

All of that was before the financial crisis started taking jobs, savings, and retirements away. Most recent polls still give John McCain a lead of six points or more. However, Rockefeller told the crowd his own poll puts the race in a dead heat. What's more, there are polls from across the nation that suggest Obama's support among white voters is surging. Some even predict he may get the highest share of those voters since Jimmy Carter in '76. No Democrat has won a majority of white voters since Johnson in '64. That dynamic may be what's helping here. It appears voters are becoming more pragmatic as America's economic outlook worsens.

In Charleston, local analyst Robert Rupp of Wesleyan College pointed out some unique West Virginia quirks revealed in a recent poll -- one of the only polls he said that asked locally about matters of race and religion. When asked if "things here...are headed in the right direction?" 46% said yes. Nationally, a huge majority (sometimes about 90%) believes the exact opposite. The West Virginia poll found that one in five West Virginians believes Obama is a Muslim; in fact, he's a Christian. But just 46% here believe that. In addition, some 15% said race is a very or somewhat important factor as to whom will get their vote.

Those findings came to life in the crowd in Charleston listening to Biden. As workers dismantled the stage, lowered the huge American flag next to the bank building, and everyone went back to work, I chatted with a few Obama volunteers about his prospects. They were optimistic. Hopeful. Anxious about what the campaign's final week might bring. One man admitted he still hears a fair number of Obama doubters while canvassing. He even revealed that his brother won't vote for Obama. Why, I asked? "Because he's a redneck," he said. Here, as in other places, the question may be whether pocketbooks prevail over prejudice?

After all the votes are counted next Tuesday, that might be an old story that much of the nation has passed. Again, a new poll suggests Obama is doing just fine with white voters, just as he did through the primaries his supporters often point out.

It's doubtful that Obama or Biden will double back through West Virginia. Its five Electoral Votes are not as significant as the bigger numbers in other battleground states. Al Gore, of course, might beg to differ: Had he won this state that Bill Clinton won twice, Florida would not have mattered.

Obama and Biden will probably leave the final week's heavy lifting to the local leaders who know these voters best -- like Byrd, Rockefeller and Manchin. A quick check of Byrd's biography reveals that he won his first election here in 1946, a seat in the state's House of Delegates. He has seen a lot come and go. His thinking has changed dramatically about matters of race. He has apologized for his past.

Now Byrd seems determined to bring enough of his constituents in line to help deliver the state for Obama and Biden. It was quite a moment that chilly afternoon, when Byrd rallied his fellow West Virginians to support "the next president" -- pausing and turning his head to the heavens. "Hear me now...the next president of the United States, Barack Obama! Barack Obama! Barack Obama!......!!"