WEST PLAINS —When Barack Obama ventured into the Missouri Ozarks on the campaign trail this summer, he acknowledged that some voters might wonder about his "funny name" and how he doesn't "look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills."
In confronting questions about his race, ethnicity and family background, the Democratic presidential nominee gave voice to an issue many voters would only discuss with their closest friends and family — if at all.
But thanks to a prominent highway sign depicting a turban-wearing, cartoon caricature of "Barack Hussein Obama," a very public conversation on race, religion, politics and free speech has dominated this remote town of 10,000 people near the Arkansas border.
Images and opinions about the sign, which has been in place for two weeks on a major north-south highway that spans the state, spread quickly in the blogosphere and on Internet chat rooms.
Some call the sign — which features an exaggerated image of a grinning Obama complete with full lips and oversized teeth — flat-out racist. Others defend the anonymous creator's free speech rights and suggest the focus should be directed toward the sign's political message.
Beneath Obama's image, the sign reads, "Barack 'Hussein' Obama equals more abortions, same sex marriages, taxes, gun regulations."
"I don't know why it's that big of a deal," said Ronnie Ford, 66, a landscaper who owns the property along U.S. 63 but insists he's not responsible for the billboard. "What's racist about it? It's a caricature of a famous man. They did it to Ronald Reagan and to Nixon. If anything, it shows the man has arrived."
Ford, a staunch abortion opponent who said he is leaning toward voting for Libertarian Bob Barr or another third-party candidate, said he was approached by several people — whom he declined to identify — about using his property for political purposes.
"Everybody wants to focus on who did it, not what it says," he said. "There are things you could do if you wanted to make it racist. ... Nobody put a watermelon slice on there, or a fried chicken bucket, or hung a rope over it. If any of that happened it wouldn't be there; I'd have cut it down."
Twenty-five miles north of the border with Arkansas, West Plains is a close-knit community where just about anyone not born locally is still considered a newcomer, regardless of how long they've lived in town. Livestock, dairy and poultry farms are spread across the rugged landscape, with saddle and tack stores scattered in the commercial district alongside chain restaurants.
The town is also home to a branch campus of Missouri State University, attracting students from Willow Springs, Ava and other towns in Howell and surrounding counties.
At the Ozark Heritage Welcome Center, which touts such tourist attractions as the sprawling Mark Twain National Forest and some of the country's most pristine paddling rivers, the anti-Obama sign is drawing attention to the region for all the wrong reasons, local boosters say.
Several potential visitors have told manager Joanne Abbey they plan to steer clear of West Plains, the Howell County seat.
"They say they won't visit here because it's a bigoted community," she said.
Unlike many other communities, locals aren't reticent over voicing opinions about race, religion and personal identity, said Jim Vokac, a retired high school teacher from Chicago who has owned property here since 1980 and moved to the region several years ago.
He described an incident in which his wife had an Obama button pulled off her coat by a woman she didn't know who said, "Do you know you're wearing a (N-word) on your chest?"
"We're not that far away from people witnessing hate speech at political rallies," Vokac said. "This is not ancient history."
According to U.S. Census estimates from 2006, the black population of Howell County is 0.4 percent. That works out to 155 people among 38,734 total residents.
In 2000, the city of West Plains reported a black population of 79 among its 10,866 residents.
"That was the purpose of the caricature on the sign — emphasizing the 'other,'" Vokac said.
Though set off by quotation marks in the sign, Hussein is Obama's middle name. His Kenyan father was Muslim, but Obama grew up in a Christian family. He has battled Internet-fueled rumors throughout the campaign that he is Muslim.
In the past two presidential elections, Republican George W. Bush earned more than twice as many votes as his Democratic opponents in Howell County. The last Democratic nominee to carry the county was Bill Clinton in 1992, when he topped George H.W. Bush, the current president's father, by only 132 votes.
Yet Obama and other Democrats are hardly writing off this part of the state. The campaign has a West Plains office — the first time locals can recall any presidential candidate with a full-time presence — along with offices in dozens of other rural Missouri outposts such as Kennett, Bolivar, Nixa and Farmington.
And a recent Democratic rally by Attorney General Jay Nixon, the party's nominee for governor, and other statewide candidates drew an estimated 400 people to the town.
"I don't think one billboard in poor taste is representative of the community as a whole," said Obama campaign spokesman Justin Hamilton. "There's a lot more (Obama volunteers) in West Plains than there are billboards."
"The entire state is in play," Hamilton added. "We're not overlooking any corner of Missouri. And we've got the boots on the ground to prove it."
A CNN/Time/Opinion Research poll of 763 likely Missouri voters released this week show Obama and Republican opponent John McCain running about even in the state.
McCain tallied 49 percent and Obama 48 percent in the survey, conducted Oct. 11-14. The results are similar to a poll conducted by the same group two weeks ago that showed Obama at 49 percent and McCain at 48 percent.
The closest Obama has ventured to West Plains is a late July visit to the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, 100 miles to the north on the edge of the Ozarks.