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Suburb shift turns state blue

(Page 3 of 3)

For Nancy Teclaw, an elderly woman who runs Oak Park's senior center and is a member of the local Rotary Club, the top issue is abortion rights. Ms. Teclaw always used to consider herself a Republican. Originally from northern Wisconsin, an area where being a Republican "was almost like a nationality," it was never really something she questioned. In 2000, she voted for Bush. But as an ardent supporter of abortion rights and, more recently, gay rights, she's slowly become disenchanted with the GOP.

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Mary Wilkening and Dana Nasralla, two mothers out walking their kids around the neighborhood, have different reasons for their Democratic allegiance. Neither fits the liberal stereotype: They're evangelical Christians, heavily involved in church.

"Faith is kind of central to our family life," says Ms. Nasralla, carrying her 4-month-old baby Carter, named for the former president. "When it all comes down, it's: 'What would Jesus' answer to this be?' "

In politics, at least, these women have decided the answer to that question in a different way from many evangelicals. Ms. Wilkening ticks off the reasons she gives her 7-year-old son why she'll vote for Kerry. "I tell him, I'm unhappy with the war in Iraq, and I feel less secure in the world. I don't like Bush's economic policies, and I feel the world hates us. Then there's the environment, and the deficit."

Nasralla opposes abortion (an issue where Wilkening waffles: "I guess I'm more pro-life. But - keep your laws off my body"). It's the same with gay marriage, though living in such a diverse neighborhood seems to have softened their views.

On other issues, they have little doubt. Their husbands used to be Republicans, but both have "converted," they say. Nasralla's spouse, who is Arab, had a sign up for Bush in 2000, but now is disgusted with the president's Middle East policies.

Over at George's Family Restaurant and Pancake House, Arthur Murnan and Susan Perez are perhaps more stereotypical Oak Park residents. The friends were activists together back in the 1960s, marching together against the Vietnam War, and both remain politically active.

Ms. Perez is a devout Catholic, but she's not happy with the politics of her church, particularly the recent pronouncements by some bishops to deny communion to parishioners who support reproductive rights, or to those in Chicago who wore rainbow ribbons in favor of gay rights.

Both she and Mr. Murnan worry about the increased political divide in America, which they see within their own families. "It's much more extreme than when I started to vote," says Murnan. "When you look back to someone like Dwight Eisenhower - yeah, he ran on a Republican ticket, but he didn't seem like the Republicans today. The current president has made that dividing line real clear - you're either with us or you're against us."

Illinois not indelibly blue

If the choice this year seems clear-cut to many in suburban Chicago, Illinois still isn't a Massachusetts shade of blue. Its residents are mostly of solid Midwestern stock, not so firmly entrenched in the Democratic camp that they couldn't switch back if political winds changed. Indeed, the state's gubernatorial-vote history attests the readiness of many voters to support at least one brand of GOP leader.

"If at some point the Republican Party nationally is able to return to a more moderate brand of Republicanism," says Professor Mezey, "then Illinois could come back into play."

The state has its fair share of swing voters who jump across party lines based on a candidate's character or specific issues.

Mike Schroeder, a mild-mannered carpenter with a blond moustache, lives on the border between suburbs and farmland in Huntley, where most of his neighbors are Republican. Self-described as apolitical, he grew up in a Republican immigrant family in Chicago. Mr. Schroeder was excited about Al Gore in 2000.

"There was a guy that cared about the environment, was intelligent, was sensible," he says. But he also voted for Ronald Reagan twice. As Schroeder munches on toasted nuts at the Park Ridge art fair, he reveals his secret: "I just go with whoever seems to be the most sensible."

Next in Continental Divide series: The media and a split political landscape.