Get your politics - on Route 66

A roadside survey finds voters bored by talk of values but impressed by Bush's ability to stick to his own.

To journey along the stretch of Route 66 that runs through Albuquerque is to enter a world of neon signs and formica tables, of vintage cars and ice-cream floats with names like "black cow."

But no matter how kitschy the surroundings, there is nothing antiquated about the folks who live and work along this slice of classic Americana, and nothing outmoded about their opinions.

Ask them about the president who was visiting these parts last week, and one hears everything from "He's just not a very bright guy," to "He's a family man, and you don't see him playing saxophones in night clubs and hugging all kinds of women."

All in all, two themes emerged from a recent roadside survey in a state that Mr. Bush lost by 366 votes, and one that will be crucial in 2004.

• Bush's talk about values as part of his "Home to the Heartland" tour seems to have a polarizing effect on voters. For Republicans, it's a political double-chocolate milkshake: It reminds them of how glad they are Bill Clinton is no longer president, and what an upstanding man Bush seems by contrast. But to some Democrats and independents, the values talk falls flatter than a grilled-cheese sandwich. Values are taught in the home, they say, not by a president.

• On a brighter note for Bush, many of those who disagree with him on the issues still give him kudos for making tough decisions and sticking with them. His energy and stem-cell policies, they say, hint at a man with strong convictions.

Down by the river

This section of Route 66 starts down by the ruddy currents of the Rio Grande. It winds westward, past the El Don motorcourt motel, under the Santa Fe Railroad, and up past the Route 66 Diner.

Down near the riverbank, Michael and Brandi Phlieger are piling their two kids out of a white Suburban and strapping them into a stroller. Mr. Phlieger, a lanky guy with long blond hair, says he's happy Bush has brought "a new focus on issues" rather than on "who the president is hanging out with at night." The couple owns two restaurants in town - and will pay $2,000 this month in power bills. So they like Bush's energy policy. "Conservation is a great priority, but so is progress," says Phlieger.

A few blocks west, at the Religious Gifts store, Joe Greigo keeps careful watch over a collection of stone garden angels ($29.95) and "Our Lady of Guadeloupe" statues ($49.95). "There's more values with this guy," he says, which is good, because in society, "there's no more morals anymore."

He especially likes Bush's independence on the world stage. "He's not liked anywhere out there, and that's what I like about him. He's kind of like Reagan."

Up the road, Tom and Debbie Gonzales are munching honey-covered sopapillas in Garcia's Cafe, which sports papiér-mâche parrots and a two-story neon arrow that beckons customers.

These self-described Democrats are pleasantly surprised by Bush. "I'd give him about a B," says Mr. Gonzales, a plumber. The tax cut was "pretty smart," he says. They'll use theirs for college books for their son - and as seed money for a vacation.

But Bush's values push is irrelevant, they say. "That stuff has to start at home," says Mrs. Gonzales, a clerical worker. "It comes from the older generation and gets passed down."

Indeed, moderate independents across the country tend to "get tired of Republicans wearing religion on their sleeves," says Michigan pollster Ed Sarpolus. "They want to see more issues stuff."

Dissent among the suds

Across the street at the Wash Tub laundromat - $1 per load - Tanisha Ellsworth says she disagrees with almost everything Bush has done so far - especially on abortion. But as an entrepreneur - a "personal development facilitator" - she understands that being on your own is tough. "Whenever you're out in front, you do have to be strong," she says. "He's doing that - and I respect him for it."

Politics amid the jukeboxes

Up at the Route 66 Diner, a Democrat who wouldn't give her name ("My friends will recognize me!") is even more supportive of Bush's decisionmaking. "I give him a lot of credit," she says, munching on a handful of fries. "He's made a lot of decisions. He's walking the walk." On energy, she says, "I wasn't thrilled about what he did, but it was a tough decision - something had to give."

This sentiment isn't uncommon, says Denver-based pollster Floyd Ciruli.

"One of the major criticisms of Clinton was that he lacked stick-to-it-ness - and there's still some contrast going on out there." Bush's approach, he observes, "is to pick only a couple of things and just stay with them." It's one reason he scores high on "leadership" in polls.

In a recent Gallup poll, 59 percent of Americans said Bush "keeps his promises," and 55 percent said he's a "strong and decisive leader." A smaller percentage - 52 percent - said they agree with Bush on the issues that matter most to them.

A couple of booths over at the diner, talk returns to values. "That's none of his business," says part-time college student Sally Dolk of his "respect" and "integrity" push. "Who we're going to respect is up to us."

Surrounded by 1950s icons - jukeboxes, waitresses in teal uniforms, a collection of Pez dispensers on a shelf - Ms. Dolk sounds a particularly modern note as she finishes her green-chile cheeseburger: "We're in the 21st century - not in the '50s anymore. He's got to get with it."

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