ELKO, Nev. -- When Mable Kite decided to get involved in a political campaign for the first time in her life, she jumped right into the deep end. She organized her local caucus, served as an Obama precinct captain, provided room and board for out of town Obama staffers and volunteers since primary season, hosted several debate watching parties, and says she's "beat on doors and made phone calls ad nauseam."
"If I didn't give a damn about anyone else, I might think about being a Republican," Mable said. "The working person is silly to be a Republican."
Most of the 14 people gathered in the Kite home to watch the third debate Wednesday offer similar reasons for why they're Democrats. They like taxes no more than anyone else, but believe that we're all responsible for paying for the infrastructure of this country. They don't think it's fair for huge corporations to take advantage of a tax breaks designed to help small businesses like family farms, and are appalled at the pay gap between executives and average workers. They believe the government should help the working class and poor with tax relief, affordable healthcare, and access to higher education.
"I can't afford the health insurance [for my employees], but we provide it," said Duane Jones. He runs a family-owned retail shop in town, and knows first hand the difficulty of being a small business owner in a down economy.
"I took a second job so we could pay for it," his wife, Delynn, added.
Delynn is a fourth-generation Elko County resident whose entire family is "dyed-in-the-wool Republican." She said she's been able to convince her sister to vote for Obama after bringing her to one of his campaign stops in town and is close to winning over her brother. "They talk Democratic values, but they think they have to vote Republican," she said.
When New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson came through town stumping for Obama, he claimed the Illinois senator - who has made three stops in this conservative stronghold since the primaries - was the first Democratic presidential nominee to visit Elko in more than 50 years, Delynn said. And the state Democratic Party chairman was quoted in a local paper saying Obama is the first Democratic nominee to open a field office in Elko ever.
No one thinks Obama will win Elko County - where Bush had his highest level of support in the state, beating John Kerry 4-to-1 in 2004 - but the energy behind the Obama campaign and general dissatisfaction with the current administration has emboldened local Democrats and people leaning in that direction.
"For the first time in my life, the Democrats are willing to claim they're Democrats," Delynn said.
"It's still a tough community for anyone to not be a Republican in," Duane said. He supports Obama, but has stopped short of posting signs in his store windows for fear of losing business, noting Elko residents can be vindictive.
Pictures of her grandkids line the walls and countertops in the Kite home, and two stuffed Elk heads are mounted on the wall in the family room, evidence of successful hunting trips taken by her husband, Russell. Crosses and religious art abound, and a Catholic study bible sits atop a desk adjacent to the dining room table. Mable said the most flack she's taken for supporting Obama has probably been from members of her church.
People who once were friendly have become less so after learning of her political leanings. "They think, 'Oh, she supports Obama, she must be a baby killer,'" Mable imagines, noting that their new priest got in a lot of trouble from parishioners after attending an Obama rally.
Mable believes in the right to choose, and doesn't think it's right to force her morality on anyone else. But personally, she would encourage other options for women seeking her advice, and takes offense at the notion that pro-choice equals pro-abortion. She liked when Obama made the distinction in Wednesday's debate, telling me afterward, "No one is pro-abortion."
Unlike the Kites and Joneses, Jane Buckovich has not been a lifelong Democrat. Born in Mexico, she first settled in the Unites States in Elko when she was 13, then spent years living in Texas and California. She's been back in Elko for 8 years, and voted for Bush in 2000 but not 2004.
About a month ago, someone from Obama's local office contacted her and asked if she'd like to get involved in the campaign. She's been canvassing and phone banking, mostly to members of the Latino community. "I convince them in Spanish," she said.
While part of the Obama campaign's Nevada strategy centers on reducing the Republican margins in rural areas - say by shooting for 2-to-1 losses rather than 4-to-1 - by winning over people like Jane, local Democrats are simply relishing the opportunity to come out from under rocks.
The Kites and Joneses are a perfect example of what it was to be a Democrat before the Obama campaign rolled into town. The former neighbors lived across the street for years, but each family assumed the other had to be Republican. After all, Duane was a business owner and Russell was "an old fart," Duane said.
More signs are popping up supporting Democratic candidates (though they often don't last long before being stolen, Obama supporters claim) and local gatherings like this debate watching party are giving the black sheep of Elko their own political community.
During the debate, some of the loudest cheers and applause came when Obama went on the defensive. The guests thought he addressed the Ayers and ACORN questions with grace and laughed when he said, "Even Fox News disputes it," when McCain alleged Obama raised taxes on people making $40,000 a year. They like that their candidate is sticking up for himself, and are taking the opportunity to defend their own right to be Democrats in a sea of Republicans.
Before he leaves, I ask Duane if he'd prefer I not use his name when writing about their gathering since he repeatedly made reference to fears of losing business for his political views.
Duane thinks about it for a split second, then says it's okay, telling me, "I'm not hiding anymore."