Matt Zeitlin says the idea that Obama "needs" to win Appalachia is "just wrong". And, of course, he has a point when he writes that "It’s just true that Obama doesn’t need the states that the media keeps on telling the Democrats they need to focus on. If Obama can win the Kerry states and flip Iowa, New Mexico and Colorado, he has the election."
Nonetheless, that's a hefty "if". Theoretically, Ohio should be a can't lose proposition for Democrats this year. Pennsylvania may be too. But...
The issue, however, is not one of "must win states" but of how wide a front Obama is going to fight on. The logic of Howard Dean's sensible "50 state" strategy is that conceding any region of the country makes your candidate's task very much more difficult: you reduce your margin of error or mishap. in such circumstances you then need to win all or almost all of the toss-up states. (The GOP's crippling weakness in the north-east is, of course, the flipside of this problem and one that makes their chances of retaining the Presidency, let alone regaining either the House or Senate that much more difficult. If I were a GOP strategist this would keep me awake...)
So the idea that Obama shouldn't worry about West Virginia, Kentucky or Tennessee because he can make up any losses there with wins in Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada is wrong. It's not an either/or situation. A compelling candidate should be able to fight in the south-west and along the Appalachian trail. Long-term trends support targetting the Mountain West, but that doesn't mean Obama can cede the white working class now. (Though in fact, I'd also suggest that in a general election facing McCain, Hillary would be just as vulnerable as Obama is amongst white working-class men.)
The argument for picking Webb is, in this sense, an argument in favour of insurance. It might go some way towards minimising the risk of disaster for Obama amongst the kind of working-class Democrats who might be particularly susceptible to John McCain's biography, political style and appeal to patriotic sentiment. Or, to put it this way, when Republicans question - as, alas, they will - Obama's patriotism, it's hard to think of a better candidate than Webb to tell the media that this is the most miserable kind of arrant nonsense. Factor in Webb's new, updated GI Bill - from which the fighting families of Appalachia and the South will benefit disproportionately - and you have a Vice-Presidential pick who can also atack McCain in McCain's own area of strength. That's a useful weapon to be able to deploy. Finally, there's the symbolism at play here.
For sure, one should be wary of how much impact Veep nominees have, but Webb's upside seems more obvious and more telling than that offered by many (any?) of the other leading candidates. If Obama is the "wine track" candidate, why not have a "beer truck" Veep? What's the downside?
Finally, Matt asks: "And if everyone is freaking out about Obama’s “weakness” in states that Democrats need to win, why aren’t we talking about Clinton getting annihilated in Minnesota or Washington?"
Well, that's easy: it's because she's not going to be the Democratic nominee.
UPDATE: Just to be clear here, the optics still massively favour Obama in November and it may well be that he doesn't need to do as well amongst white working-class voters as previous Democratic nominees given his ability to appeal to middle-class and upscale moderates. But this makes the point too: he has no need for a Veep who might help him on those areas, so why not choose someone who may be able to help him in areas of comparative weakness? (Of course Wbb might not want the job...)