Why Upper Midwest is up for grabs

In the 2000 election, this small town just west of Racine split between George W. Bush and Al Gore. The margin: less than 10 votes.

Now, fours year later, the middle-class community, like the state of Wisconsin, seems just as divided - and is getting more attention than usual from both candidates as a result.

Despite intense focus on the three biggest swing states - Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida - there's another Florida-size prize that the campaigns can't ignore: three states in the upper Midwest that have gone Democratic since the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa together match the Sunshine State's 27 electoral votes. With the race coming down to just a handful of swing states, this region has the potential to be pivotal this year.

So John Kerry's bid for president is ending, in part, where it began: in Iowa. And George Bush is scraping for votes on political turf that is best known for nurturing liberal and progressive leaders such as Hubert Humphrey and "Fighting Bob" La Follette. In some ways, it's surprising that the three are so contested. None has voted for a Republican president in 20 years, and the last time Minnesota went GOP was in 1972. Despite those figures, however, Democrats have never had a lock on the region. Mr. Gore may have won Wisconsin, but it was by less than 1 vote per ward.

It's an area where character is often more important than party affiliation. The region is more socially tolerant than the Bible Belt, but a long way culturally from New York or San Francisco. Despite Madison and Minneapolis, these are above all blue-collar, middle-class states, ones that respect workers and farmers and want to see hard work rewarded.

While all three states are willing to elect Republicans to state government, many pollsters expected the national party to have a tougher time. The more conservative politics of the Bush administration can be a tough sell among moderate Midwesterners.

But a few trends have helped: a population boom in the far-out suburbs, or "exurbs," which tend to be more conservative, and a gradual dying-off of the older, New Deal generation, replaced by voters raised with Watergate and Vietnam and receptive to an anti-government message.

For the Republican Party in these three states, "it's like the perfect storm - they have the message, the population growth, and suburban growth at same time," says Lawrence Jacobs, director of the 2004 Elections Project at the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota.

Still, he says, "it puts a real test to the national Republican Party. If they can win in the upper Midwest, it's a clear sign this is now a national party that can win both in the South and up North. But if the president ends up not winning in upper Midwest, it's probably going to spark debate in Republican circles about the resources they diverted from other highly contested states."

In Sturtevant's Driftwood Lounge, a family restaurant with a popular lunch buffet that serves free pie on Tuesday, voter ambivalence is evident. Andy Sell, a painter and woodworker, should be the ideal Kerry supporter. His big issues are education and the environment. He hates the Patriot Act, and he's frustrated with Iraq. In 2000, he voted for Ralph Nader. Though he'll probably go with Kerry, he's having a hard time deciding.

"I saw somewhere that he told the Sierra Club he drove a hybrid car, and he told the auto unions he was the proud owner of an SUV," says Mr. Sell, shaking his head. "I like Kerry's ideas, but I'm not sure he'll follow through. Bush seems more certain - he does what he says. I just don't always like what he says."

A couple tables away, Nancy Schmidt and Sue Manos, two middle-aged co-workers on a lunch break, are leaning the opposite direction, but are just as lukewarm. Bush is "the lesser of two evils," says Ms. Manos. "With Kerry, you don't know where he stands." Ms. Schmidt agrees: "You need to have someone in there who can make a decision, and will stand behind a decision once he's made it. Kerry doesn't have a mind of his own."

Yet neither woman is happy with Bush's leadership: They worry about the economy, Iraq, and healthcare. "The last person I really liked on the economy was Reagan," says Manos.

Roger Clausen, finishing up his meringue pie in the next booth, has made his decision too: He won't vote. "I can't find anybody I like," he says with finality.

Indeed, while most recent polls show the candidates tied or Bush a few points ahead in the three states, the president isn't overly popular. A Knight-Ridder-MSNBC survey last week showed fewer than 50 percent of voters in those states believed the country is headed in the right direction.

A Chicago Tribune poll in Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, and Ohio earlier this month revealed a clear divide on different issues. Voters in all the states believed Kerry would do a better job than Bush at restoring jobs and economic growth, but by an equally substantial margin they believed Bush would be better at protecting the US from a terrorist attack. Yet voters listed healthcare and jobs ahead of terrorism, Iraq, moral issues, or taxes as their top concerns.

The national image of Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota as progressive states isn't really in line with reality, say a number of experts. Wisconsin, for instance, is "the state where the Republican party was founded, but it's also a state that has the heritage of the Progressive movement," says G. Donald Ferree, director of Public Opinion Research at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. "It put both Russ Feingold and Joe McCarthy in the Senate."

It's a state with a solid but dwindling manufacturing sector, and large numbers of farmers and hunters. Latte-sipping liberals abound in Madison, while dairy farmers struggle just outside the city. Milwaukee's substantial minority population contrasts with the state's all-white image elsewhere. Milwaukee has elected three socialist mayors, while Appleton, farther north, is the headquarters of the far-right John Birch Society.

"Wisconsin is close to being a microcosm of the nation," says John McAdams, a Marquette University political scientist.

And plenty of Wisconsin voters have much stronger opinions than those in the Driftwood Lounge. "This town is very split," says Sandy, a small business owner in Sturtevant who didn't want to give her last name for fear of driving away customers. "My best friend has Bush signs over everything. We just don't discuss it."

For Sandy, the economy is a top priority. "I'm barely hanging on," she says. "My husband's disabled. We'll lose our health insurance in January. I'm on a month-to-month basis at this point. Bush has done nothing for me."

A couple of strip malls down, sitting under the Halloween decorations at Annette's Café, Don and Carol Dalziel are staunch Bush supporters. The genial elderly couple vigorously oppose abortion and gay rights, worry about healthcare costs, and see Bush as the stronger leader.

"I think Kerry is a real backer of the United Nations, and I think that whole organization is so corrupt," says Mr. Dalziel, a retired manufacturing worker. "I don't think Kerry understands the magnitude of the problem."

"And I love Bush's wife, Laura, compared to Kerry's wife," adds Mrs. Dalziel.

An elderly mother and daughter finishing their lunch nearby are even more vehement. "I can't see how any working man can vote for Bush," says Mary Mann, a passionate nonagenarian. "When I was 6 years old, my father said to me you have to remember three things: You're an Irish-American, you're a Roman Catholic, and you're a Democrat."

She raised her two daughters alone, working as a waitress and typist, and doesn't think Bush has any sense of the struggles lower-income people face. "I think about the economy, and the companies going overseas and getting tax breaks, and it's a crying shame," Ms. Mann says.

Drive west from Sturtevant along Route 11 to Burlington, though, and the Bush signs multiply get more common as the landscape turns increasingly rural. Despite Kerry's contention that the Bush administration will oppose milk price supports when they come up for renewal in 2005, many farmers seem to sympathize more with the president.

Wisconsin, along with Minnesota and Iowa, tends to be pragmatic and down-to-earth. Images of Bush working on his ranch have more appeal here than Kerry windsurfing. "The whole idea of a liberal elite that runs the country: It's very effective, and a lot of people in the Midwest buy it," says Thomas Frank, author of "What's the Matter with Kansas?"

At this point, the upper Midwest is still up for grabs. That's bad news for Kerry, since defending his turf here diverts resources from other states. For his part, Bush hopes to offset a loss in a state like Ohio (20 electoral votes) by winning at least two of the three states. "He's worried about Ohio, needs a backup strategy, and is looking to pick up Wisconsin and Minnesota as insurance," says Dr. Jacobs.

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