Is the heartland the economic armpit of America?

Writing in the Wall Street Journal last week, native Kansan Thomas Frank isn't too complimentary on the state of affairs: will find that small-town America, this legendary place of honesty and sincerity and dignity, is not doing very well. If you drive west from Kansas City, Mo., you will find towns where Main Street is largely boarded up. You will see closed schools and hospitals. You will hear about depleted groundwater and massive depopulation.

While the windshield tour may yield an array of sorry small towns, much of the mostly rural Heartland has beaten the national job growth rate since the early 1970s. Like the rest of the nation, the heartland of America is urbanizing -- producing many small growth nodes of prosperity.

While many of the small prairie towns are dying on the vine, the biggest reason is not "electing people like Sarah Palin who claimed to love and respect the folksy conservatism of small towns, and yet who have unfailingly enacted laws to aid the small town's mortal enemies," as Frank suggests, but rather a combination of larger factors including the re-balancing of 100-year old settlement patterns and the macro effects of automating the ag industry.

So what's the prevailing politics in small towns? Here's the Iowa Independent's Douglas Burns writing about Obama's "bitter" rural American's gaffe:

...does any thinking person believe Obama’s brief and failed turn as a rural anthropologist will hurt him more than what Republican presidential candidate John McCain said today in Alabama?

“We must reduce barriers to imports, to things like ethanol from Brazil, and we’ve got to stop subsidizing ethanol in my view,” Senator McCain said.

If the ivory-towered urban elites hawking their tiresome flyover views on cable television each night want to see what a bitter small-town American looks like, they can come to western Iowa during the second year of what we have every reason to expect would be a decidedly anti-rural John McCain presidency.

Barack Obama misspoke. John McCain didn’t.

Rural Americans know the difference.

Burns also correctly predicted Palin's Vice Presidential nomination. What all three of us can agree on is that many rural voters seem to elect candidates who enact policies contrary to their interests. Can Obama make any real inroads with Great Plains rural voters?