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Postcard From Nebraska: Obama’s Chance At The Heartland

Paul Hammel is the Lincoln Bureau Chief of the Omaha World-Herald.

Voters lined up hours before the opening of polling places here in Nebraska, where the big question is whether Barack Obama would be the first Democrat to win an electoral vote from the GOP-dominated state in 44 years. Nebraska, like Maine, has a unique system of awarding electoral votes, awarding one to the highest vote-getter in each of its congressional districts. There is more than one scenario that, if this election is close, an Obama victory could come down to the single electoral vote being contested in Nebraska's 2nd congressional district.

Obama opened three campaign offices in Omaha, at the heart of the 2nd district, in hopes of snatching its electoral vote. A surge in Democrat registration in the district is bringing Obama one step closer to victory: For the first time in 14 years, Democrats out-number Republicans in Douglas County, which includes Omaha. The surge, however, will have to overpower the traditional GOP suburban strongholds in the same district. Voter excitement is highest in northeast Omaha, the center of that city's black community--a demographic that has proven to be Obama's firewall across the country. "You almost want to scream and shout, but you've just got to maintain," Annette Evans, 41, a black, first-time voter from north Omaha, told a colleague of mine at the Omaha World-Herald today. She said she waited 45 minutes to cast her vote for Obama.

Voter turnout is also high in the traditionally conservative and Republican areas of rural Nebraska, were there is a lot of concern about the economy and the prospect of a Democrat-dominated Capitol. "This is the strongest voter turnout I can ever remember in this town," polling place volunteer Sheila Beck (from Clarke, a central Nebraska farm town of 361 people) told another colleague. "People are fired up to vote whichever way they're voting."

Obama campaigned in Nebraska during the May primary, speaking to an overflow crowd at Omaha's Civic Auditorium--clearly making Republicans a bit nervous; it was the first time in several years that a presidential candidate had campaigned in Nebraska, which had always been counted on as a guaranteed winner for Republican presidential candidates. Sarah Palin even came to Omaha last month in hopes of keeping the 2nd district in the Republican fold, speaking to more than 6,000 people at a hastily organized rally. Despite Democrat gains in registration, however, the GOP still enjoys a 558,465-to-392,943 lead in voter registration in the state.

The House race in the 2nd district is also tight (though the state's Senate seat and other two House seats seem safe for Republicans). Nebraska is also likely to pass a controversial initiative to ban affirmative action, which is being pushed by national groups. In a state that has more cows than people, the surprisingly contentious contests are driving voter turnout in Nebraska to record heights, with 72 percent of registered voters, or 833,000 people, expected to cast votes. Whether that represents a stampede of Democrats eager to vote for Obama, or a herd of nervous Republicans hoping to help another McCain comeback, remains to be seen.

--Paul Hammel