CHATTANOOGA, TENN. — AT the Mudpie, a coffee shop in an up-and-coming arts district in Chattanooga, Tenn., waiter Mike Hacker could easily be mistaken for a liberal.
He sports a ponytail, wears four earrings in his left ear - one a peace symbol - and talks more like a southern California surfer than a Southerner.
But Mr. Hacker, a student at the University of Tennessee, calls himself an ``open-minded'' conservative.
As such, he's glad the Republicans are in control of Congress, although he admits to only superficial knowledge of the GOP ``Contract with America.''
Moreover, his party loyalty, and that of other Chattanoogans, may not run very deep.
``If bad things come of [the Contract,] it will just go back in the opposite direction,'' he says. ``That's what we do when we don't like change.''
Many Chattanoogans interviewed - from artists to city workers to manufacturers - voiced support for key Republican Contract issues such as prayer in schools, welfare reform, and tax cuts. But there's an underlying skepticism here in the buckle of the Bible Belt that any party in Washington - Republican or Democrat - can successfully tackle these issues. While approving of the direction the Republicans plan, many here have adopted a wait-and-see attitude.
The mostly conservative opinions in this city of 152,000 on the banks of the Tennessee River are not surprising. They represent the prevailing attitudes and values of the South, says Robert Swansbrough, an associate dean at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.
``Chattanooga's a much more conservative and religious-oriented community than you'd probably find on the average nationwide,'' Mr. Swansbrough says. ``When you come here, you're in historic east Tennessee, which has been the bedrock of Republican growth [in the state] since prior to the Civil War.'' Still, he says, while many here lean to the right on issues such as school prayer and gun control, ``close to a plurality would call themselves moderate. If you ask them about government stepping in to create jobs, clean up the environment, you'll get a more liberal response.''
Indeed, school prayer appears to be supported by a broad spectrum of Chattanoogans.
Amen to school prayer, especially a moment of silence, says Genienne Toomey, a restaurant supervisor at the Marriott Hotel. Ms. Toomey, who comes from a family of ``strong'' Republicans, also touts welfare reform. ``I think a lot of people abuse welfare,'' she says.
Art teacher Durinda Cheek is slightly wary about Republican plans to cut the National Endowment for the Arts. ``I don't agree with all the NEA has funded, but I hope [the Republicans] don't do a blanket cut,'' she says.
Former policeman Bob Beatty, says: ``I just hope they do something about crime and homelessness. We need a new law concerning teenagers'' who are terrorizing neighborhoods.
OF course, not all Chattanoogans are pleased with the new Capital Hill crew. Doug May, a waiter at a local restaurant who describes himself as a disenchanted liberal, is apprehensive. ``I feel like the interests of the religious right are at the head of the Republican agenda, and that does not bode well for the nation,'' he says. Concerning welfare reform, for instance, Mr. May says: The Republicans ``are neither economists nor social scientists. I'm afraid they will go about things in a rash manner. I think they'll blow it.''