| KANSAS CITY, Missouri
KANSAS CITY, Missouri Missouri corn farmer Phil Vogler doesn't need to listen to any more campaign speeches or see more political ads to know who he will support in November's U.S. presidential election.
Vogler's vote is going to Republican presidential nominee John McCain. The farmer cites as a key reason for his newly found enthusiasm not McCain's record but his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
"She helps. She is probably more conservative than McCain is," said 38-year-old Vogler, a self-described conservative who farms 2,000 acres in northwest Missouri. "She'll be good on the economy."
Only weeks ago, rural America's 60 million voters were considered largely up for grabs as assorted economic woes focused attention on a need for "change" - the central theme of the campaign of Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama.
But political observers now say the mood may be shifting in favour of Republicans following McCain's selection of the 44-year-old Palin as the nominee for vice president and the party's own agent of change.
The first-term governor's conservative anti-abortion, pro-gun views, along with her tough-talking complaints about government excess and her family life in a small Alaska town, is endearing her to many rural voters.
"She is a phenomenon and people are paying attention," said Dee Davis, president of the Centre for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, Kentucky. "It's changed the dynamic for the moment for sure."
The centre is conducting a poll on how well the candidates are appealing to those living outside U.S. cities and suburbs and hopes to have fresh data within two weeks, Davis said.
"Nobody is happy with the way the country is going. And early on, we saw that really favouring Obama," said Davis. "I don't know that is true now."
In the last two presidential election cycles, rural voters were key to Republican George W. Bush's victories. Bush won rural counties by 16 percentage points in 2000 and 19 points in 2004. Similarly, in the 1990s Democrat Bill Clinton, a former Arkansas governor, was able to draw majorities from small-town Americans and won two terms in the White House.
Obama, who would be the first African-American president, has been trying to rebuild the rural base that helped give Clinton victory, hoping populist ideas for bolstering the economy and creating new manufacturing jobs will give him an edge over McCain, whose strengths have been more connected to military and foreign policy issues.
Telling voters there are "farms to save," Obama has opened offices and deployed staffers across a broad swath of swing states such as Missouri, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
HEALTH CARE, GAS AND FOOD PRICES
In Missouri, where unemployment rose to its highest level in 17 years at 6.4 percent in July, the Illinois senator's campaign has 40 campaign offices, 27 of them in rural communities, compared to McCain's nine.
Missouri is considered a presidential bellwether, having voted for every winner since 1956. Opinion polls in Missouri show McCain leading Obama by an average of about 4 percentage points, in line with the national trend, according to the website Pollster.com. Obama staffers have been heralding the narrow margin as a sign of his strength in the swing state.
Obama backers tout his support of a new $289 billion U.S. Farm Bill, which McCain opposed, and support for federal crop insurance programs that McCain also opposed.
And in speech after speech Obama hammers home the woes he blames on Republicans: rising joblessness and home foreclosures and soaring food and fuel costs.
The overall message has resonated with many.
"We've always voted Republican," said 70-year-old Shirley Wikander who lives with her husband in Ozark, Missouri, population 9,500. "But I'm supporting Obama.
"My daughter and her husband are without health insurance ... and they are having to decide between gas for their car and food for their table," Wikander said. "It is shocking. I can't believe this is our country."
Republican political consultant Bill Greener acknowledged McCain and Palin have a high hill to climb to win small-town Americans. But he said Palin was a "tremendous asset."
"It's clear the Republican brand is suffering across the nation, including in rural America," Greener said. "But for all the celebration among the Democrats ... Sarah Palin has a genuineness to her, and she has given voice to a whole group of people."
But League of Rural Voters executive director Niel Richie said he thought the Palin effect could fade before November.
"What is on people's minds is the economy - how they are going to get their medicine and pay for gas in their cars? There is real economic difficulty in rural America."
(Reporting by Carey Gillam, Editing by Peter Bohan and Jackie Frank)