WI - Events in Iraq Prove a Distraction and a Guide for Wisconsin Voters

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Published: August 15, 2004

Article originally published at http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/13/politics/campaign/13state.html

WI MapMILWAUKEE - Mirna Zavala, a 53-year-old medical technician, is just the kind of voter, her thoughts still shifting and swerving, who could tip the presidential election in Wisconsin. Ask whom she favors and she instantly pours out all her uncertainties about what is happening in Iraq, doubts that she expects will last all the way to November.

"Honestly, I don't know what to do," Ms. Zavala said as she wandered near Lake Michigan clutching the hand of her young granddaughter. Ms. Zavala voted for President Bush in 2000 and says her relatives still adore him. Never far from her thoughts, though, is that her son-in-law is a soldier, and so her uncertainty keeps growing.

"Now, when I look at it, I think Bush misled the people about Iraq, and I feel sad for all the families, for all these soldiers that had to die," she said. "But then I don't really know what Kerry would do about it either." Ms. Zavala stopped, then finally said, "I guess I can only wait and see what happens."

There lies a central complication for the campaigns as they fight for a state that gave Al Gore just an ounce more support than George W. Bush four years ago. From working-class neighborhoods in Racine in the southeast to the pine- and fern-covered hills near Lake Superior, voters speak of factories that have closed, schools short on money and health insurance beyond reach.

But many seem focused on the United States' role in Iraq, and the issue divides the state. In June, the Badger Poll, conducted by the University of Wisconsin Survey Center for The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and The Capital Times, found that 26 percent of those polled considered the government's handling of Iraq mostly or completely a success, while 44 percent deemed it "only partly" a success and 27 percent found it to be mostly or completely a failure.

And unlike so many other political issues, where the parties can control the terms of the debate, the conflict in Iraq is ever changing, and it will likely go right on changing until Election Day, and beyond.

"That is what is so difficult about this whole issue for both sides: So much depends on events that haven't happened yet," said G. Donald Ferree Jr., associate director for public opinion research at the University of Wisconsin Survey Center. "And each side is caught in exactly that mess."

The toll here, military officials say, is comparable to it in other states, and like elsewhere, the war has struck home in Wisconsin in deeply personal ways.

In July, Rhinelander, a small Northwoods town in a state of mostly small towns, buried Staff Sgt. Stephen Martin, an Army reservist and police officer who had patrolled the community on bicycle. In April, people here watched one suburban Milwaukee family's very public and wrenching struggle: After one sister, Michelle M. Witmer, 20 and a National Guard specialist, was killed, two others had to choose whether to return to their Guard units in Iraq.

More than 70 other Wisconsin residents have come home wounded, 19 have been killed and scores of other service members have learned that their tours were being extended.

Gov. James E. Doyle, a Democrat and the chairman of John Kerry's campaign here, says he senses faith in the Bush administration wavering. "We want to believe that the young men and women who have died, our Wisconsin sons and daughters, have done it for a worthy purpose," Governor Doyle said, "so I think generally people in Wisconsin want to give the president the benefit of the doubt in a question of war.

"But I think there are really very significant doubts that are creeping into that now, questions that people really have on whether this is worth it, and, again, it's more of sort of this vision, of what was his purpose, has he made us safer by going to Iraq, has it been worth the terrible loss that we've suffered."

Rick Graber, the state Republican chairman, counters that he hears praise for President Bush on questions of security and war. "Most people in this state believe it's a safer world without Saddam Hussein and they believe President Bush has handled it well," Mr. Graber said.

Four years ago, Mr. Gore won the state by so few votes that everyone in politics here, from the governor to the campaign volunteers clutching clipboards along Farwell Avenue in Milwaukee, recite it to the final digit: 5,708.

That miniscule split two-tenths of one percentage point has ensured the campaigns' attention as both sides vie for the state's 10 electoral votes. Political ads already fill television broadcasts, tens of thousands of volunteers from each campaign are busy making phone calls, and both candidates, with their offices and paid staffs here, keep coming back.

Most of the time, Democrats do well in the state's two largest cities, Madison and Milwaukee, where liberals are numerous and some of the state's largest concentrations of Hispanic and black voters live. Republicans tend to do well in Milwaukee's wealthy suburbs.

Both sides are turning to the small towns that run down the western edge of the state, along the banks of the Mississippi, where Mr. Gore fared well in many cases in 2000 but where Republicans now hope to win over rural voters. And both sides are tangling in the Fox River Valley a fast-growing, eastern swath of the state that includes Green Bay and Appleton and in places like Racine County, one of the counties that, like the state as a whole, split nearly in half four years ago.

In a way, though, the fight is everywhere. As political operatives tell it, a single reversed vote in each ward in 2000 would have changed the outcome here.

So on a morning in downtown Milwaukee, young interns from the League of Conservation Voters one of several independent groups directing attention on Wisconsin voters on behalf of causes and candidates led cheers for Senator Kerry on a busy street corner. The volunteers then marched door to door to chat about what they call President Bush's grade of "F" on the environment in a state known for its lakes, streams and farmland; they intend, they say, to visit 150,000 Wisconsin homes three times before Election Day.

Meanwhile, one Milwaukee woman spends at least 40 hours a week volunteering for the Bush campaign, she says. The official Bush campaign Web site features the woman, Kari Rae (she does not use her full name to avoid unwanted phone calls) as its "No. 1" volunteer nationally for having, it says, recruited 226 volunteers, signed up 5 friends, contacted 294,490 people to register to vote, called 89 radio talk shows and written 21,288 letters to news editors.

"I am committed to this president," Kari Rae, 52, said.

No Republican presidential candidate has won the state since Ronald Reagan did two decades ago, but that may mean less than it would somewhere else. Partisan politics are complicated here. Since the days of Robert M. LaFollette, this state's Progressive governor of a century ago, Wisconsin voters have defined themselves by independence: they happily split tickets and rarely cling to a particular political party for the sake of loyalty.

Although both of its United States senators are Democrats, the state's House members are evenly split between the parties, and Republicans dominate both bodies in the Legislature in Madison. For now, most statewide polls show Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry in a near tie.

In addition to the situation in Iraq, a critical question for both parties is voters' perception of the economy. Between January 2001 and January 2004, Wisconsin, a state with a strong manufacturing base, lost 79,000 factory jobs. Then came surprising news this June from state labor statisticians: Unlike some of the other manufacturing-based battleground states, Wisconsin had begun to see a surge in new jobs.

Republicans have pointed to the 20,900 new manufacturing jobs since January as evidence of a crucial and optimistic trend for November.

"The economy is doing better," said Tony V. Nestoras, 40, a computer programmer from the suburbs of Milwaukee. "And Bush deserves at least some of the credit for that. Who knows where we'd be if Gore had won."Some workers, though, question the quality of the new jobs. "We're talking low-wage jobs and no benefits," said Susan Conhartoski, 32, of South Milwaukee, whose husband, John, was out of work for a year.

David E. Azarian, the owner of the Main Street General Store in Racine for 25 years, said his sales had been down for three years running. Even as state officials described signs of recent improvement, Racine lost another business: In June, Color Arts, a graphics imaging company, shut down, leaving 226 people unemployed. "Say what you will, but I say the economy is doing terribly," Mr. Azarian, 60, said.

Democrats hope the choice of Senator John Edwards as Mr. Kerry's running mate will help the ticket. In the primary election here, Senator Edwards campaigned hard and had a strong second-place showing. "Edwards helps," said Jon Di Piazza, an undecided voter from Middleton. "He came off well here."

Ralph Nader, meanwhile, remains a question mark for Democrats. Mr. Nader won 94,000 votes about 4 percent of the vote in 2000, and he should have no trouble getting on the ballot as an independent: only 2,000 signatures are required by a Sept. 7 deadline.

Senator Russell D. Feingold, a Democrat considered by some to be one in Wisconsin's long line of political mavericks, also faces a contest this fall, potentially complicating the presidential race. Four Republicans are vying for the chance to try to unseat Mr. Feingold, and some Republicans leaders say they hope to make an issue of his lone vote in the Senate against the broad antiterrorism legislation known as the USA Patriot Act.

Still, the voters' thoughts keep coming back to Iraq. In Appleton, beside the Fox River on the state's eastern side, opinions on the war were starkly divided.

Eating in a cafe on the downtown thoroughfare, Angie Schiesl, a hairdresser, said she was unfazed by findings that intelligence information used to justify the war against Iraq was flawed.

"Something had to be done with Saddam Hussein," said Ms. Schiesl, 41, who said she voted for Mr. Bush in 2000 and would do so again. "The weapons of mass destruction don't matter."

A block away, Brad Lindert, 21, said the war was probably the single most important election issue for him.

"I still cannot figure out what we are doing there," said Mr. Lindert, who said he would vote for Mr. Kerry in November. "I don't know what Kerry will do about it. I don't know what anyone can do about it. But at this point, I don't like what Bush is doing."

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