By KIRK JOHNSON
Published: January 19, 2009
TULSA, Okla. — “I voted for John McCain and still would,” said Tim Driskill, in a flatly drawled declaration of certainty that still speaks for many in this place underwhelmed last November by the charms of Barack Obama, then the Democratic nominee for president.
Not a single county in Oklahoma stirred from the orderly phalanx marching behind Mr. McCain, the Senator from Arizona who was the Republican nominee, and Mr. Driskill, the owner of an insurance agency in downtown Tulsa, said he was proud to be in those ranks. Statewide, two out of three voters supported Mr. McCain — the highest rate in the nation.
But that largely monolithic, conservative Oklahoma is harder to find now. While there are countless Mr. Driskills here — and hardly anyone doubts that Mr. McCain would easily win again in a redo of the vote — there are also new fractures and fault-lines as some voters have shifted toward accepting what the rest of the country wrought in giving Mr. Obama a lopsided victory.
In interviews in the week leading up to Mr. Obama’s inauguration, many people here said a tolerant spirit toward his presidency has been hastened, paradoxically, by some of the same groups that voted mostly Republican in the election. Those include active or former military personnel, and people who identify themselves as evangelical Christians — two groups with traditions of respecting hierarchical order and strong leadership.
“Oklahomans understand and respect the elections process,” said Chris Benge, a Republican from Tulsa who serves as speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives. “Once the president has been determined, the vast majority of people are willing to get behind him.”
That does not mean, Mr. Benge said, that Mr. Obama has won Oklahomans over, but only that the campaign season has ended. Do not look for Mr. Benge at any inaugural parties. He said he would be watching what he can of the ceremonies on television in his office between meetings.
Some people have, in fact, changed their minds. Leonard Nelson, 63, a 23-year military veteran of both the Army and the Navy, said he had voted for Mr. McCain mainly through military fealty — believing that Mr. McCain’s own military record would make him a better commander in chief.
“But I’ve come to think the better man won,” said Mr. Nelson, owner of the Humidor Cigar Shop, an aromatic haven of pipes, blended tobaccos and customers on a first-name basis. Mr. Nelson said that Mr. Obama, through his cabinet nominations, sent a signal of centrist government intention that feels O.K. to him.
Humidor customers like Cliff A. Stark, an attorney and pipe-smoker, were more representative of the spirit of pained resignation that is common here. “It’s just something you can’t do anything about,” Mr. Stark said.
At one of the city’s biggest evangelical megachurches, Victory Christian Center, with 17,000 members, there were also mixed messages of enthusiasm.
The center’s pastor and founder, Billy Joe Daugherty, said that the selection of the Rev. Rick Warren, a prominent evangelical pastor from California, to give the inaugural invocation went a long way to easing fears in Mr. Daugherty’s mostly conservative congregation about a liberal social agenda. Mr. Obama’s selection of Mr. Warren was denounced by many gay rights advocates and other liberal groups.
“What I’m sensing from Obama in making the choice he did — he’s saying to all groups, ‘Why don’t we come together?’ ” Mr. Daugherty said in an interview.
Inauguration Day, though, will be mostly business as usual. The fifth through 12th graders at Victory Christian Church will watch the ceremony on a big screen, but Mr. Daugherty said he would be traveling. Church staff members might watch in their offices, he said.
To be sure, Oklahoma remains in many ways a place unto itself, subtly distinct from the national pattern. The state unemployment rate, while up almost a percentage point from where it stood in the fall, is still well below the national average. And the state budget, for the moment, is running a surplus.
Gun sellers have also prospered, selling the notion that the Obama administration might try to tighten gun ownership rules. What had been a monthly gun show near downtown has been held twice a month since November.
But an economy that looked solid enough two months ago to feel insulated — or at least not shaky enough to nudge many voters toward the idea of changing party control of the White House — has also shivered since then in the chill breeze of recession.
Ron Green saw a change in mid-November. Sales at the downtown deli owned by his wife, Susan, called The Greens on Boulder, dropped 30 percent in one week, compared to the previous year.
“Business fell off a cliff,” said Mr. Green, who pitches in at lunch. In conversations with customers, he said he had heard more business people agree lately that an Obama stimulus plan was sounding pretty good for the city.
And some people say that racial tensions have heightened, too — perhaps because of the worsening economy, perhaps as people digest what an African-American in the White House could mean for jobs and race relations in the city. With 380,000 residents, Tulsa is 70 percent white, 15 percent black and 7 percent Hispanic.
Princetta Rudd-Newman is living through that mix of hope and angst. She exults one minute over Mr. Obama’s election, she said, and frets the next over the future of the city she loves.
Her family has a long history here — an uncle began one of Tulsa’s oldest black-owned businesses, a funeral home, in 1917 — and she has been trying this month to organize an inaugural party in the city’s historically black north end. But the money has not been coming in, especially the $150-a-ticket Patriot level, pitched to local white-dominated corporations.
She does not think it is about race, though she agrees that tensions have increased. “It’s financial, in my perception,” she said. “It’s hard times.”
But it is also a time, for many people, to wait and see. The political debate over what might be has developed into more practical considerations about what can be done with the world as it is.
“Nothing’s changed,” said John Rittenoure, a software developer for Tulsa’s electric utility company, referring to his opinion of Mr. Obama. “But you’ve got to give the guy a chance, see what he can do.”
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