Mario Terpstra has never considered himself a Democrat.
Not yet, anyway. Mr. Terpstra voted for President Bush in the last election, but has since questioned his key decisions, from Iraq to the economy.
"Tax cuts for the richest is the wrong way to go," he says, shaking his head as he packs up his white tent and puts away the unsold beets, green tomatoes, and peppers from his Iowa farm. He and his wife now pay over $8,000 a year for health insurance, he says.
"I don't think [Bush] has a clue what the average guy goes through in life."
That sentiment - which could prove dangerous for the president if it grows - is echoed by others at this last farmer's market of the season in Johnston, just north of Des Moines.
But Americans' view of Bush, here and nationwide, is balanced by forbearance and support as well as criticism.
Holly Taylor, a young mother with a large pumpkin sharing the stroller with her toddler, says simply: "I think he's done a good job." She supports the White House decision to take military action in Iraq, and although the economy is her primary concern, she sees the weak job market as "not Bush's fault."
As the Bush administration moves forward with a PR offensive designed to counter a negative media image of Iraq, polls are showing the president's support to be stabilizing.
A Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll, taken Oct. 6-10, shows an index of Bush's presidential leadership in barely positive territory - at 53.5, little changed from the prior month.
Meanwhile, two other polls, taken last weekend, suggest that Bush's ratings may be rising along with his efforts to get out a more positive message on Iraq. A Washington Post/ABC poll released Wednesday puts Bush's approval rating at 53 percent, unchanged since the previous month. And a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll found the president's approval at 56 percent, up from 50 in September.
"You can see that the media outlets are making efforts to cover the positive side of the story [in Iraq], which they weren't doing before," says Raghavan Mayur, who conducts the Monitor/TIPP poll. Other possible factors, he says, include signs that the job picture could be starting to turn around. Moreover, Americans may be getting accustomed to daily attacks on Bush from Democratic candidates.
Still, Bush appears to remain vulnerable, especially if more people start to share Terpstra's label of him as out of touch.
Iowa is a closely watched harbinger state, whose early role in the presidential race frequently brings locals face-to-face with candidates. It has a Republican-controlled legislature, but has gone for Democrats in recent presidential elections. Al Gore won the state in 2000 by just 4,000 votes.
For many, jobs outweigh Iraq
Here, as in much of America, it's the economy and healthcare that are on people's minds more than Iraq.
"Other than the families and friends and relatives of those people called up, on a day to day presence you don't really see evidence of the war, whereas you do see economic concerns," says Dennis Goldford, chair of the department of politics and international relations at Drake University in Des Moines. The tide "hasn't turned against Bush yet, but it could go either way."
If the economy is front and center for many Americans right now, the Monitor poll may hold a few bright spots for the president. The poll's economic optimism index, based on respondents feelings about federal policies, their personal finances, and the six-month outlook for the nation, was up slightly over last month.
But among some of the middle-of-the-road voters here, amid plentiful pumpkins and a cloudless Indian summer sky, the pendulum seems to be swinging away from Bush.
"What's going to happen to Social Security?" asks Dwaine Milliken, who stands by his booth of pistachios, wasabi peas, and flax seed as his wife, Pat, sits in a lawn chair. "And health insurance? We have Medicare, but that don't cover it."
He's not much happier about Iraq. "It bothers me when troops have families here, have kids, and they're gone for a year," he says, shaking his head. "That's not right." Mr. Milliken says he's voted for both Republicans and Democrats, depending on the candidate, and he's pretty sure that next year he'll be voting to put a Democrat in the Oval Office.
Recent news about a one-month rise in the number of US jobs hasn't alleviated worries on the work front.
"They say there's more jobs now, but a lot are low-paying," says Phyllis Jobst, an energetic woman with short gray hair, who works at a Target store in Des Moines and has three grown children. "I see people working two or three jobs just to make ends meet."
Judy Anderson, who volunteers at a nearby homeless shelter, says she's most bothered by money going toward priorities such as Iraq rather than social programs. "My opinion of Bush has gotten worse" since he was elected, she says.
If some of the moderate voters in Iowa are feeling troubled, though, many other Americans are still convinced the country - and Bush - is on the right track.
"He's very conservative, and I'm very conservative," says June Causey, a Jacksonville, Fla., resident who participated in the Monitor/TIPP poll.
She and her husband, both retired, worry about rising healthcare costs. Even with Medicare, she says, she's looking at a $2,200 hospital bill right now that she's not sure how she'll pay. But she doesn't blame Bush for that or for a weak economy.