OKOLONA, MISS. — Joann McIntosh isn't proud of it, but it's been a while since she voted. Probably 1992, when Bill Clinton was first on the ballot. At any rate, she plans to make up for it now.
She's chiding her friends to register and, if they are registered, to vote for a change. And on the door of her beauty supply store along Okolona's short, sluggish Main Street is a hand-lettered sign: "Obama T-Shirts For Sale."
Last week she had several on hold at the front counter for people to pick up Friday, payday. They are $9.99 each and stand out in a room full of hair beads, wigs and extenders. She pulls one off the rack. It is black, with the faces of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Barack Obama set against an American flag.
McIntosh, 44, holds it to her chest. " 'I have a dream,' Martin Luther is saying. And then Obama is saying, 'I am the dream.'
"That's my favorite."
Hers is a familiar story in Chickasaw County, a bucolic expanse of forests and fields south of Tupelo, Miss., where African-Americans account for 42 percent of the population, and where elections for president, governor and Congress are particularly close.
In places like this across the South, Democrats are counting on Obama to draw black voters like McIntosh and her friends to the polls in record numbers. It is not so much for Obama himself, who is unlikely to defeat Republican Sen. John McCain in such Southern conservative settings, but rather to boost the fortunes of Democratic candidates in down-ballot races for Congress, state legislatures and local offices.
With Democrats seeking to expand their margins of control in the House and Senate, the Obama effect is expected to help out in Louisiana, North Carolina, Virginia and Alabama.
But nowhere might the wave be stronger than in Mississippi, a Republican stronghold where a Democrat captured a solidly Republican U.S. House seat in a special election this spring, and where Democrats have their best chance in 20 years to win a U.S. Senate seat.
Just over 37 percent of Mississippians are black, the highest proportion in the nation. In recent elections, African-Americans have made up about 37 percent of those voting, too, census records show.
If excitement over Obama can push that number close to 40 percent, independent analysts and Democratic strategists say, former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, an antiabortion, pro-gun Democrat, stands a real chance of beating Republican Sen. Roger Wicker, who was appointed in December to fill the unexpired term of Republican Trent Lott, who retired.
Most polls show Wicker with a slight lead, but Republicans and Democrats acknowledge the state is poorly polled.
"It depends how much Obama organizes in the state," said John Bruce, a political scientist at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. "Even if he can't win in Georgia, Alabama, here, places like these, if he organizes, he is going to affect the down-ballot races."
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Louise Floyd Cole is living the lesson the past two presidential elections have taught: Every vote counts.
With short, kicky hair, platform heels and a linen top, she looks every bit the stylish Tupelo Realtor. But she's also a native of Chickasaw County, a lifelong Okolona resident, "fourth house on the left" when you pull into town — who believes Obama's candidacy offers a rare chance for black Mississippians to build a stronger political base.
So she rambles the tree-lined back roads of Chickasaw in her Lexus SUV with a sheaf of voter registration forms. When she spies someone who looks likely, she hands them a form and a pen.
"You don't want to insult people," she said, explaining her technique. "You say something like, 'Have you updated your registration?' Even though you know they're not registered. You give them that out."
Cole figures she has registered 25 people in the past couple of weeks. "Which is not a big number. But if all of us do that, we'll be fine."
Cole, 57, is part of a coalition of efforts targeting African-Americans statewide. It includes the Obama campaign, which has paid staffers in Jackson and volunteer "captains" in more than 60 of the state's 82 counties, and which has been holding voter drives in cities like Jackson and Columbus.
But it also includes local Democratic clubs, church groups and the National Council of Negro Women, which registered 150 voters Saturday at a park in Okolona. Chickasaw County, which has only about 20,000 residents, has seen the number of registered voters jump by almost 10 percent since the last election, to 14,700, according to the county clerk of court.
As of Monday, the state reported just over 1.8-million registered voters, 300,000 more than in 2004.
Unlike Florida, Mississippi doesn't register voters by party, so it's impossible to say whether Mississippi's new voters are likely to vote for Obama and Musgrove or McCain and Wicker. But Democrats insist many are black voters who haven't been targeted before.
"They didn't have anything to vote for," said Mamie Cunnigham, 67, of Okolona, a Democratic activist. "They got hope this time."
Ryan Annison, a spokesman for Wicker, cited data showing that 16 of the top 17 counties for new registration are ones the Republicans routinely win. "Turnout among African-Americans will be up, but I'm not sure it will be up as far as a percentage of the total vote," Annison said.
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Musgrove, too, faces something of a balancing act. As governor, he endeared himself to many black voters by pushing to replace the state flag, which boasts the Confederate battle flag in the top inside corner. Not only did he fail, but his stance helped Republican Haley Barbour unseat him in 2003.
Now Musgrove needs Obama's help to win, but he cannot align himself too closely with a liberal-looking Democratic senator. He skipped the Democratic National Convention and a rally in Oxford, Miss., on the eve of the first debate between Obama and McCain.
The African-Americans who are registering voters in Chickasaw are talking about the contradiction. But they seem content to let it slide, an unfortunate irony that one election won't solve.
"It's just that little part of it that kind of disturbs me," said Cunningham, a retired teacher. "But I understand why he has to do it."
Times researchers Caryn Baird and Will Gorham contributed to this report. Wes Allison can be reached email@example.com or (202) 463-0577.