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Cover Story

What Americans want from the next president

On the eve of a historically tight election, a writer drives through swing states and listens to the voices of America, hearing one overriding plea: 'Washington, stop bickering. Get something done!'

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The mechanic, who has tight-cropped hair and a Tom Selleck mustache, expected more from President Obama. "Adding $5 trillion in debt to the economy is ... not how you build a foundation for the future," he says. "We need tax breaks; we need to get small businesses going again."

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In the desert, downturns can be dated like trees. Just drive south a few miles on Decatur, turn west onto Wigwam Street, and there lies "Sunset Pass," a gated community of red-tile-roofed homes. Across the street is a moonscape of empty sand and rocks. The line denotes starkly where the city's housing bubble collapsed. Out here, civilization ends abruptly.

Yet not everything is grim with Nevada's economy or mood. Consider Elko, in the northeastern part of the state. It is the boom to Las Vegas's bust. The world's second largest gold mine sits about 40 miles outside town, and unemployment in the Elko area stands at an enviable 5.5 percent. It's not uncommon to hear talk about commodity prices in local cafes and saloons (and, yes, the town does have saloons). A headline across the front page of the Elko Daily proclaims: "Gold price hits $1,700." Inside, a 136-page "Mining Quarterly" insert is full of what any city would covet – hundreds of job openings. Billboards along Interstate 80 in California and Nevada advertise for mineworkers, too.

Eric Mitchell and Gus Rackley, stout men in black leather vests, sit outside the Stray Dog Bar and Grille on Fifth Street, bathed in bright neon light. "That's what this town is – casinos and gold mining," Mr. Mitchell says. "If you want a job, you go to the gold mines."

But the prosperity has come at a price. The gold boom has driven up housing prices and other expenses. The mining industry has also brought in a large number of transient workers, lured by big paychecks, which does little to create a sense of rootedness or lasting prosperity, according to Mitchell. He worries about a comet economy – a temporary surge, with all the conspicuous consumption that comes with it.

As if on cue, a truck rolls by on Idaho Street, hauling a large sailboat. "Like that," says Mr. Rackley. "A sailboat in Nevada. Why ... does a man in Nevada have a sailboat?"

The misgivings Rackley and Mitchell have are ones that every boom-bust town has struggled with for generations: how to create a diverse economy and jobs that last. Mitchell sees larger lessons for America: It's time to stop sending jobs offshore and spending money rebuilding roads in Afghanistan.

"We need more good jobs, you know?" he says. "We've shipped too many jobs overseas, and it's time we started looking out for ourselves."

View from a VFW post in Colorado

Vernon Davis sits in a booth at VFW Post 899 off Main Street in downtown Alamosa, Colo. The septuagenarian served one tour in the Korean War and three more in Vietnam, flying aircraft for the US Army. I ask him if he can tell me about his time in the service.

"No," he says. "I'm not going to talk about that."

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