ABINGTON, PA. — Curtis Levin may live in a swing state, but there's nothing wavering about his intention to vote for John Kerry this November. Picking up some hoagies at Barton's Deli, he pours forth a ready list of political grievances: George W. Bush is "a puppet who doesn't have any original ideas," and who will appoint antiabortion justices to the Supreme Court. The war in Iraq is "a joke." And while "they say war is good for the economy," Mr. Levin scoffs, "I don't have any extra money."
He and his wife work long hours - he at a medical marketing-research company, she as a medical illustrator - and they're paying more for healthcare, a particular concern now that his wife may need an expensive back operation.
Less than 15 miles away, Brian Annillo sees this election in equally stark terms - only from the opposite view. Senator Kerry is "a flip flopper," for whom he has "zero respect." The war in Iraq is being undermined by the media and has in fact gone relatively well: "I don't believe any country in the world has ever been taken over with less than 1,000 casualties." The local economy is strong - housing prices are skyrocketing, he notes. Indeed, his only real grievance has to do with traffic: Tired of commuting into Philly, he's opening a new business selling children's furniture.
Both Messrs. Levin and Annillo live in one of the most contested congressional districts in the country, tucked within one of the nation's top battleground states. Stretching from the working class neighborhoods of Northeast Philadelphia to the ritzier suburbs outside the city, and the farm-dotted exurbs beyond, pollsters have already labeled the 13th district a bellwether - the area most likely to determine which way the state, and possibly the nation, tips.
Over the past 10 years, the seat has switched from Republican to Democratic, back to Republican, and then back to Democratic again. Pennsylvania pollster Terry Madonna recently claimed: "If the term swing voter didn't exist, it would have to be invented to describe many of the voters in the 13th congressional district."
But while voters here have a long history of moderate views and ticket splitting, almost no one is undecided when it comes to this fall's election.
"Purple" states like Pennsylvania are often held up as the exception to the red-blue divide - and they are, in the sense that they're not reliably tilted toward a single party. Republicans and Democrats within these states have plenty of exposure to one another, and theoretically are more likely to cross party lines at the ballot box.
But that doesn't mean the nation's purple states aren't exhibiting the effects of polarization. In fact, in some ways, the red-blue divide shows up with even greater intensity.
Here in Pennsylvania 13, the relatively even mix of partisan views and looming sense of high stakes - all condensed within a small radius - combine to lend a prickly tension. Throughout the district, voters on both sides of the divide express strong political beliefs, and even stronger frustration with members of the opposing party, many of whom they count as neighbors.
One of the few things Levin and Annillo agree on is that the bitterness between the parties hasn't always been like this. But lately it seems to be growing. Annillo, for one, blames the media. "The media is extremely biased," he says. News consumers on both sides are getting "opinion and not the facts," inflaming debate.
Levin traces the schism to "an economic division." His hometown of Abington, he says, is increasingly split between wealthy residents who are getting richer by the day, and middle and lower-middle class people who are struggling to get by. "You're either one or the other," he notes. He also blames the rise of cultural issues like abortion, which he sees as inherently uncompromising: "You're either pro-choice or you're not." Having picked a side, "people are stuck," he says. "There's really no bending."
Both presidential candidates are focusing intently on Pennsylvania, a state rich with 21 electoral votes, which Al Gore won in 2000 by just 5 percent. President Bush has visited 30 times since taking office, often stopping in towns in and around the 13th district. Kerry is campaigning hard here, too, last week kicking off a "front porch tour" outside Philadelphia. He also staged his first photo-op with running mate John Edwards at the Pittsburgh farm of his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry - an estate that belonged to Mrs. Kerry's late husband, Pennsylvania Sen. John Heinz (R), who remains highly popular here.
Solidly Republican from the 1860s through the 1920s, Pennsylvania was the only major state to vote for Herbert Hoover over Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. But Roosevelt's New Deal and the rise of the union movement soon brought the state's many steelworkers and coal miners decisively into the Democratic column - splitting the state down the middle politically and transforming it into a campaign battleground for the next seven decades.
For years, economic divisions dominated the political landscape, with the wealthier eastern part of the state traditionally in the GOP camp, and the more industrial western part allied with the Democrats. But lately, the rise of cultural issues has created new political crosscurrents. Culturally conservative voters in the west are finding growing appeal in the Republican Party, while socially liberal voters in the east are moving toward the Democrats.
The result is a state that backed Mr. Gore in 2000 and elected a Democratic governor, Ed Rendell, in 2002 - but where Republicans outnumber Democrats 12 to 7 in the US House, and both US senators are Republicans as well.
The 13th district, which cuts an oblong swath from Northeast Philadelphia out through Montgomery County, is in some ways a microcosm of the state itself. It includes a variety of races and classes - and a striking clash of partisan views. Its urban sections are less Democratic than one might expect, and its suburban parts less Republican.
Among the tidy brick 1950s row houses in Northeast Philadelphia, grassy plots are decorated with colorful lawn ornaments and American flags. This is a part of the city once settled by immigrants - German, Italian, and Irish - and it's still populated by blue-collar workers, firefighters, and cops. Culturally, the neighborhood leans Republican.
But the presence of many union members also gives the area a Democratic counterbalance: Signs on lampposts read: "Teamsters for Kerry." And lately an influx of minorities is furthering that Democratic trend.
Sitting on her front stoop, watching the traffic go by, Rose Richard typifies the changes to this neighborhood. A Haitian immigrant, she's studying at Drexel University, while working at a local hospital. She's also a Democrat who plans to vote for Kerry - largely because of her concerns about health insurance and the availability of student financial aid. Kerry's no Bill Clinton - "he was awesome," she smiles - but she's seen the Massachusetts senator's commercials, and he has her vote.
Yet as more Democrats like Ms. Richard move in, longtime Republicans here don't seem to be altering their views. Many are growing more stalwart.
Gene Costanzo has been cutting locals' hair in his shop along Cottman Avenue for 24 years now. A native Italian who moved here in 1950, he was initially a Democrat, but switched around the time of Ronald Reagan's presidency and has been "strongly" Republican ever since. "I guess I was not satisfied with the Democrats," he explains, adding simply: "I work all my life, and they're spending my money."
Directly next door, Mr. Costanzo's son Michael runs a sporting-goods store, where he outfits local Little League teams. He's more staunchly conservative than his father. There's "nothing" he doesn't like about Bush, whom he regards as "a good, religious man." Although Kerry is Roman Catholic like himself, Costanzo thinks the candidate is "not much of a Christian," since he supports abortion rights, something Costanzo opposes. A strong proponent of the Iraq war - "if we don't fight it overseas, we're going to be speaking Arabic in this country" - he says that if Kerry wins, he'll be "pretty upset."
Costanzo knows his views cause friction among some of his neighbors: "I'm pretty conservative for this area," he admits. "Democrats have a hard time talking to me." He recalls a recent "screaming" match he had with an ex-girlfriend about Iraq. But he's equally frustrated by what he sees as many union members' unthinking loyalty to the Democratic Party. They're "basically puppets" of the union leaders, blindly buying into arguments that they could lose their jobs, he says. "They're just scared."
Outside the city, the landscape changes: Urban neighborhoods quickly give way to leafy suburbs with expensive antique houses. Route 73, which cuts through the 13th district, runs past charming villages like Blue Bell, featuring upscale restaurants with names like Fuzion, and an assortment of antique shops and pet-grooming stores. Employers here include pharmaceutical companies like Merck and Wyeth, and there's a burgeoning high-tech industry.
At the outer reaches of the district, the scenery becomes rural Mennonite country. Mixed with the farms, however, is a growing number of new developments: clusters of big, identical houses, with three-car garages and fake stone siding - luring upwardly mobile families with the promise of more house for their money.
But while the new scenery brings some shifts in political views and priorities, the partisan loyalties of the voters are no less fierce. Some voters, particularly in the closer-in suburbs, stake out moderate positions, and a few even offer tempered criticism of their own party. Significantly, many say their vote is driven more by opposition to the other side's candidate than enthusiasm for their own - a reflection, perhaps, of the region's steady diet of negative advertising.
While Democrats express strong distaste for Bush, many also admit to lukewarm feelings for Kerry, or say they don't know much about him. Republicans say they want no part of the Massachusetts senator, but several also admit they don't approve of everything the president has done.
To some extent, residents note, the area's wealth, which once tied it securely to the Republican Party, also enables the adoption of certain liberal stances. It's the kind of place where "people can afford to be progressive," explains Eric Podietz, noting that his town of Upper Dublin has an active - albeit expensive - recycling program.
The town of Ambler offers a coffee house and an art theater that is currently showing "Fahrenheit 9/11." But, perhaps in a nod to the mix of partisan views, the theater also offers "rebuttal papers," an assortment of positive and negative articles about the movie, for its patrons.
Mr. Podietz, who just purchased tickets to "Fahrenheit," is a Democrat who says he's never voted Republican. When it comes to Bush, he says unequivocally "it's time for him to go," citing his "overly simplistic notions," his "arrogance," and the way he "favors business." But he's not thrilled with Kerry either, seeing him as "kind of business as usual," though he does like that Kerry is a decorated war veteran.
Many voters here readily admit that they have much stronger feelings about this presidential election than in the past. And many say that their partisan fealty is primarily at the presidential level. They show a willingness to cross party lines in local and state elections.
Coming out of a late afternoon showing of "Fahrenheit," Jane Spigel declares she'd "vote for Mickey Mouse" over Bush in the upcoming election. Ms. Spigel is adamantly opposed to the Iraq war and what she sees as the unnecessary loss of innocent lives. A full-time student in elementary education, she admits she doesn't necessarily think Kerry is the "best man for the job" - indeed she has "a lot of respect" for Ralph Nader. But getting Bush out is her "No. 1," and she plans to volunteer for the Kerry campaign this summer.
Spigel may oppose Bush, but she doesn't feel the same about all Republicans. Her local state representative, she says, is a Republican and was "extremely helpful" with an insurance problem. "I'd definitely vote for her," she says. At the national level, she points to John McCain as a Republican she "would vote for."
Even more striking, she recently made a pilgrimage to Washington to view Ronald Reagan's casket - catching the 11:30 p.m. train out of 30th Street Station, and waiting for more than seven hours in a line "that made Disney look like nothing," to go through the Capitol Rotunda and pay her respects.
"Whether or not I agreed with all his policies, he was president of the United States," she says. "It was an honor to pay respect to him."
Typically, the most persuadable group of voters in these types of suburbs are women. They are the so-called "soccer moms," later dubbed "security moms," who tend to be socially moderate but fiscally conservative, who worry about terrorism but also about education. Most are registered Republicans, but many also voted for Clinton and Gore.
Yet this time around, almost no one seems inclined to cross party lines. Watching her four kids navigate the "starship" ride at a carnival at the Wissahickon High School near Ambler, Republican Karen Williams describes her vote as "more anti-Kerry than pro-Bush." Kerry "waffles a lot," she says. But while Bush has "done some good," she also thinks "the country's being distracted a lot by Iraq."
Initially she favored the war - "the intent was good," she says. But lately she's concluded, "it just can't be implemented. It's turning into a mini-Vietnam. You can't pull out, and there's never a good time to leave."
Ms. Williams grew up in this area and came back to raise her own family here. "It's a very solid place," says the stay-at-home mom. Her husband works for a big pharmaceutical company - "hence, Republican," she jokes. She's always voted with the GOP, and says she will stick with the president this fall.
Standing with Williams, Diane Jeckovich says she too will vote for Bush because "he's safer for business," but adds: "not that I agree with everything that's happened." She supports the war in Iraq, but thinks "there were probably a lot of mistakes made," and "it's a shame it's dragged on this long."
Like Williams, Ms. Jeckovich typically votes Republican, but notes that she supports abortion rights and stem-cell research. In 1996, she voted for Clinton over Bob Dole. But she can't envision crossing party lines this time: "I think Kerry's scary," she says.
And for every moderate voter like Jeckovich, there are more passionate ones, like Joe and Mary Mallon, attending the carnival with their kids.
Mr. Mallon, a physician, was once a registered Democrat - but says he's always voted Republican and has become more conservative since getting married. He agrees with Bush on "most things," though he notes, "some valid questions have been raised" about Iraq. He sees a stark division between the two parties over social issues. "Clinton was probably more fiscally responsible than Bush," he says. But "the Lewinsky thing really turned my stomach."
His wife is a self-proclaimed straight-ticket Republican, who just purchased a T-shirt off a website that reads: "Michael Moore is fat." Raised in an Italian family of Republicans in South Philadelphia, she's always voted with the GOP - but grew much more conservative in recent years, largely over the issue of abortion. She lost a child, she explains, and after that grew more active in the Catholic Church - and more focused on "what matters" in life.
A stay-at-home mom, Ms. Mallon listens to Sean Hannity on the radio and says she finds herself "yelling and screaming" about the politics of her more liberal neighbors. "We all sort of coexist," Mr. Mallon says. "This is a very volatile area."