In the ultimate swing district, angst on war

Vox Americana: Ninth in a series on public attitudes about war.

Sara Pickett is the kind of person who may worry President Bush - and his reelection strategist Karl Rove - the most in the near future.

A full-time mom and a registered Republican, she supported the first Gulf War and the attack on Afghanistan. But she's concerned that invading Iraq now would be like "attacking a hornets' nest." You may get the queen, but you'll also get the other hornets mad.

And she's ready to blame Bush if it goes badly.

Though only one voter, Ms. Pickett carries some symbolic weight. She lives in Oakland County, America's ultimate swing district - a collection of well-to-do Detroit suburbs filled with Mercedes dealers, Gold's Gyms, long driveways, and tightly clipped lawns. If a possible war with Iraq goes well and ends quickly, Bush stands to reap big rewards here, and across America. But if war goes badly, if casualties are high, or if troops get bogged down in protracted street battles, Oakland County's swift disillusionment could foretell a political quagmire. Then, say many voters here, Bush would get trounced in the next election.

Perched in a red-velvet chair at Starbucks, sipping a latte while a friend takes care of her daughter, she's relishing a suburban American moment - an evening interlude that looks typical, even mundane, from the strip mall sidelines or the Tex-Mex joint next door. But in that idle respite lurks an ambivalence that could be pivotal to Mr. Bush's future. Indeed, one thing is clear from discussions across this suburban enclave: The political risks of war are huge.

Job on the line, and memories of war

"Bush has put his job on the line - that's for sure," says Robert Tice, a World War II vet sipping coffee nearby. He's sporting a black-leather jacket and sitting across from his wife, Beulah. "We celebrate our 60th anniversary next week," he says, beaming.

Mr. Tice supports the war. Saddam Hussein is a "monster," he says, just like Hitler. He admires Bush for taking the risk. "He's doing what he thinks is right regardless of the political consequences," Mr. Tice says. "I guess he figures he can always go back to Crawford" - to his ranch in Texas.

But Mrs. Tice, who clutches her red jacket with its fur collar close to her, has mixed feelings - and is more conscious of war's human costs. She recalls getting letters from Robert when he was in the South Pacific. They worked out a code to tell her his whereabouts: "Please have pumpkin pie ready," meant he was in the Philippines. "It was probably illegal," she says, with a grin.

These days, she worries about the families - both American and Iraqi. "I heard some people in Baghdad are digging wells under their houses where they're going to hide when bombs start falling," she says in a plaintive tone.

Ultimately, though, she comes to a conclusion about the war that's common here: "If it's short, it's a good thing. If not...." And she just shakes her head.

Looking back to Reagan - longingly

Just a few miles down the road, a 30-something named Carla is nestled deep in a navy-blue armchair in the business-books section of another suburban icon: the Borders bookstore in Birmingham, Mich. In a sign of the town's affluence, the store sits halfway between a Land Rover dealer and a small showroom full of Lotus sports cars.

As she flips through "Top Business Schools, 2003," the recently laid-off financial-services worker explains that, like many in this county, she's far from being a political purebred. She grew up in a strongly Republican household and was a big fan of Ronald Reagan. College in Minnesota, she says, "changed things a bit." And now she's against the war - even though, she says, "I'm a pretty big hawk."

The difference between Reagan and Bush, in her mind, is that "Reagan had the right response for the times." He needed to be pro defense because "there was a very clear threat that the Russians would push a button" and launch a thermonuclear war.

But now, she says, Bush's hawkish approach comes when "we've got someone in a sandbox with a couple of weapons." The real battle - against terrorism - needs to be fought by boosting economic opportunity in the Arab world, she says, not by "just lobbing a bunch of bombs."

As she sees it, Americans' lukewarm support of a war without UN approval means Bush risks repeating his father's mistakes: Carla describes the 41st president as "an ivory-tower elitist who didn't pay attention to the people and got booted out." And she suggests the same thing could happen to the son.

'If this comes off less than perfect ...'

Indeed, the risks are high, as Frank, a dapper gray-haired retiree in the car-books section, sees it. "If the war goes well, and all is resolved by the next election, Bush is a shoo-in," says the former auto-industry journalist, who's ambivalent about the war.

"But if this comes off less than perfect, he'll have a hard time getting reelected."

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