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Politics that go against the grain

In Dubuque, Iowa, the bar at Mario's Italian Restaurant is a hothouse of politics these days.
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On Main Street in this Mississippi River town, the bar at Mario's Italian Restaurant is a hothouse of politics these days, a place where folks such as Cheryl Walser Kramer, a Republican, and Frank Frost, a Democrat, hurl sharp-tongued barbs across party lines.

"She's probably packing heat," Frost, 71, jokes when Kramer says she's a member of the National Rifle Association.

Kramer teases back, "I'm gonna get a bumper sticker: 'I only shoot Democrats.' "

Debbie Gau, the bartender, glides through the friendly fire, filling Frost's glass with whiskey, Kramer's with beer, and letting them carry on the rhetorical war here in Iowa's 1st Congressional District. It is one of the super-close races that could decide whether the Republicans lose control of the House of Representatives -- and Gau, it turns out, could be part of the reason why.

Though she keeps quiet about her politics when her regulars are revved up, she's got some distinct views of her own.

Gau, 52, a Democrat, supported the war. She thought Iraq had attacked the United States, and she thought it right that the United States should hit back. But then the war dragged on. The death toll rose. She's got a brother working as a civilian contractor over there and worries about him every day.

"I just don't think we should be over there," she says. "We should just leave."

The war looms large in this year's midterm elections, so the pollsters say, and sentiments such as Gau's are the reason why: the drift of support away from war, the struggle to find a rationale for continuing a war in which U.S. troop deaths mount and the chaos deepens.

In Iowa's 1st, which has sent only Republicans to the House since 1978, the open-seat race pits Democrat Bruce Braley against Republican Mike Whalen. But in several interviews on Main Streets around this district, it becomes clear that people are focused less on the candidates and far more on the big issues of the day: corruption, scandal and polarized politics; the cost of health care, the quality of education, the economy and the war above all.

People are cynical about politics, at least about the other party's politics, and so Democrats especially believe that things have gone off the rails in Washington.

Gau, for one, is not even sure she'll vote. She's disaffected from politics altogether.

"I just think politics is crooked," she says. "The rich pay to get what they want from the people in office. . . . It's like the Mafia, with laws. They get to run what they want, when they want. They don't mean nothing that they say."

* * *

'We're stuck, honey'
Over in the tiny town of Anamosa, about 60 miles southwest of Dubuque, Sue Postel, 61, watches the comings and goings of Main Street from her perch at the cash register of the National Motorcycle Museum, which features bikes dating back to 1910. It's the main draw of an otherwise sleepy town.

Ask what's eating her these days about politics and Postel lets loose not about the war, but about her monthly health-care premium. It's risen from $25 a month to $394 a month in the five years since she retired.

She's a Bushie -- voted for him twice -- though she's a registered Democrat and also voted for Bill Clinton. A bona fide ticket-splitter, she is not sure which candidate will get her vote, though she definitely will vote, she says, because "that gives me my chance to bitch."

"This war is another thing," she says, shaking her head. "But there's nothing you can do about it. We're stuck, honey. How are we going to get our troops home?"

Her angst about the war is related to her distaste about politics and the direction of the country -- a solid mound of discontent with many component parts.

Politics, she says, "is dirty, it's nasty. I don't like to watch it. I switch [the TV] when ads come on. I can't take the slammin'."

Of late, the ad that's had blood boiling among Democrats in the district was one in which the Whalen campaign tried to suggest that Braley would defund the troops in Iraq. The ad depicted a soldier removing his armor, helmet and weapon and standing defenseless in a T-shirt.

* * *

Down in Maquoketa, 35 miles south of Dubuque, cigarette smoke clouds the air as Peter Carlson talks politics in the Main Street Cafe, as he does most Saturday mornings in this spot-on-a-map town.

His muscular arms on the table, Carlson leans in close, lowers his voice and says matter-of-factly, "I hate Bush with a passion."

Carlson, 27, wears a Harley jacket and heavy boots. His fingernails are dirty, for he's a man who works with his hands on a machine shop floor, who lives on 28 acres of timberland with his wife and toddling son.

Carlson can cite chapter and verse of what's wrong with American politics. The war; the corruption of influence and power; the creation of wedge issues to polarize people, "making issues out of non-issues," such as stem cell research.

"I have no belief that that's important whatsoever," Carlson says of the stem cell debate.

He's sick of it. Sick of accusations that folks who criticize the war are undermining the troops.

"I do support soldiers," he says. "They're employees. They do their jobs. But it's obvious that Iraq was not the place we should have gone into. . . . They had nothing to do with 9/11."

So he'll vote for Braley. But really, Carlson will be voting against Bush, against the Republicans.

"Now is kind of the time to put all your cards in," he says. "I'd like to see us win back the House."

* * *

Sparking activism
Sometimes it is something quite personal that sparks political activism. Something such as watching your father suffer with Parkinson's disease and then hearing a public figure mock the disease's symptoms.

And so it was, back in Dubuque, that Stratis Giannakouros was overheard at a Braley campaign office one night last week offering to volunteer.

Giannakouros, 27, says he was deeply offended when he heard Rush Limbaugh ridicule the actor Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson's disease, for shaking so wildly in a campaign ad supporting federal funding for stem cell research. Seeing his father suffer in the same way, Giannakouros says, he was outraged at the mockery.

Though already a Democrat, he had not been active. Limbaugh was his spark. Giannakouros volunteered to canvass Democratic voters, "to make sure that this state doesn't go Republican," because he believes that Limbaugh wasn't just speaking for himself.

"He is the Republican mouthpiece," says Giannakouros. "He represents that party."

But it's more than Parkinson's. Something more, he says, is wrong. In politics, he hears the rhetoric of compassion, but he doesn't see it in policy, he says, citing cuts in education funding and the Mark Foley scandal.

He is reluctant to opine on the war, saying he doesn't feel he has enough facts.

"I'm against the misinformation" is all he'll say, adding that the misinformation comes from both sides in the political debate.

* * *

Back at Mario's, they're throwing down the spirits and talking terrorism and the war and politics.

"I think the president has his [eye] on the ball," says Kramer, the Republican, who works in health-care administration. "I think he totally understands that the people who came here on 9/11 plan to come back."

"There are evil people in the world," says James Darling, her companion, an optometrist and a Republican who describes himself as a libertarian.

He adds, "If you don't appear strong, you appear weak and people will take advantage of you."

Frost, the Democrat, agrees. Though he is against tax cuts for the rich and believes the country is better off with Democratic leadership, he offers, "I have a little more hawkish opinion than most Democrats."

In fact, he calls himself "a bit of a warmonger." Rather than pull troops out of Iraq, he'd like to see more troops sent in. He's a Korean War vet who sat on the demilitarized zone more than 50 years ago and is aghast that the United States still is dealing with the North Korean threat after all these years.

"If Truman had let MacArthur A-bomb Korea, we wouldn't be here," he says.

When it comes to enemies, his philosophy is: "We've got to stomp somebody's [butt]." He believes the Democrats know this, too -- that all the talk about pulling troops out of Iraq is just politics.

"I think the Democrats are trying to use it against [Bush] to get elected, but it don't mean nothing," says Frost, who will vote Democratic and who last voted Republican in 1968.

Frost describes himself as "very liberal."

"I don't think you're very liberal at all," Kramer interjects.

There is a quiet confidence about her, some might call it smugness. All this talk in the media about Republicans being in trouble? On the way out of power? Reaping what they've sown? She's not so sure.

"No vote's been cast, and they're already predicting the demise of the Republican Party," she scoffs.

She nods her head crisply, warning, "Republicans will turn out."