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Voters Express Concern Over Iraq, Terror Ahead of Casting Ballots

October 26, 2006 at 10:35 PM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Gwen Ifill moves the story beyond the numbers now to hear what some voters have to say in their own words.

GWEN IFILL: Every candidate and every polltaker has seen it this year: a critical midterm test that could well be decided by voter intensity. The intensity of Republicans who support the president and the congressional majority…

BOB ARRIX, Connecticut Resident: You cannot fall victim to the cut-and-run philosophy that is beginning to permeate the left wing of the Democratic Party.

GWEN IFILL: … and the intensity of those who do not.

CHERYL SIMMONS, Missouri Citizen: It’s time for a change, time for a new one. Let’s see some stuff happening. Quit talking about what we’re going to do, and let’s actually do it.

GWEN IFILL: As we traveled the country covering political races this year, the NewsHour’s team encountered an unusually engaged community of voters with a wide range of concerns. Many, like Connecticut Democrat Al Simon, want their voices heard on the war in Iraq.

AL SIMON, Connecticut Democrat: The war is a total disaster. And there’s nobody that I know in my circle who thinks that it’s the right thing to do. Most of us thought it was bad from the start, but it’s turned into such an unmitigated disaster that someone who doesn’t recognize facts and refuses to change an opinion really seems to be out of touch with reality. That’s what’s changed.

GWEN IFILL: Bill Wright is an Ohio Republican who supports the war.

BILL WRIGHT, Ohio Republican: Probably the war in Iraq has got a lot of people wondering what’s going on, and they’re probably not — a lot of them are not happy. I think that’s caused by a lot of the major networks reporting all the bad things going on in Iraq. They don’t see any of the good things.

GWEN IFILL: But for many voters, pocketbook issues continue to dominate.

BILL KENDRICK, Indiana Citizen: I don’t think the economy is good. Stock prices are going up, but I still don’t think the economy is good. And I think the Democrats could do a better job of it.

KEITH WELSH, Ohio Resident: Well, in Ohio, you know, there’s been a lot of job loss and not a lot of job creation. So, you know, you’ve got to blame somebody, so you either blame the governor or you blame the senators.

JEFFRIE HOWARD, Tennessee Resident: There should be ways of changing things so people can get up on their feet, you know, more jobs, create jobs, OK, for the people that need it, the homeless. Give them something to go to. Don’t just hand them out food and stuff. I talk to them all the time, these down here. Find a way to put them in some kind of program. Instead of giving them a helping hand, just give them a hand.

GWEN IFILL: And in states as disparate as Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Arizona, the issue of illegal immigration surfaced time and time again.

JAQUELINE TORRES, Arizona Citizen: You know, I feel for anybody who is a part of trying to come up with a good solution to this problem, because I feel strongly about that, about having my tax dollars go to provide services for people who are not here legally. So then let’s do something about legalizing them.

CURT FRINKLE, Arizona Citizen: Oh, I’m a Republican, but I will vote for the person who will — who’s got the right plan. Whether he’s Democratic or Republican, I really don’t care about that.

GWEN IFILL: A running theme in many of these discussions, a simmering discontent that polls show crosses party lines and demographic barriers.

VOTER: There seems to be a genuine lack of respect for people in Middle America, for the people who are, you know, the middle class of the country. The politicians seem genuinely more concerned with maintaining power than doing what’s right for the nation and for the citizens.

VOTER: I agree. I think we’re looking for a change, and part of that change may be that some Republicans that have been there in the Senate for years are not going to be going back, because right now we’re very frustrated.

VOTER: When somebody has been re-elected a number of times, you start to wonder, “Are they getting complacent? Are they really fighting for the people they’re representing? Or have they just gotten comfortable there?” Because it does seem to be still an old boys’ club.

Security and the War in Iraq

GWEN IFILL: It is these voters, concerned, thoughtful and determined to show up at the ballot box next week, who will determine the control of Congress.

Speaking to the voters shed a lot of light for us on this year's campaign, so we decided to bring some of the folks we've met along the way here to our studio to discuss what issues will drive their ballot-box decisions.

Can I start with you?

EDUARDO ROMERO, Democrat, Virginia: My name is Eduardo Romero. I live in Arlington, Virginia, and I work at the Nonprofit Roundtable.

MAURICE GOODMAN, Republican, Pennsylvania: Hi, Gwen. My name is Maurice Goodman. I'm from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and I'm a Republican.

PAT THIELEN, Republican, Arizona: My name is Pat Thielen. I run a hotel in Tempe, Arizona, and I'm a Republican supporting a Democrat this year for Congress.

SANDY SKAGGS, Democrat, Missouri: I'm Sandy Skaggs from Missouri, and I'm a Democrat.

DAVID HAN, Democrat, Maryland: David Han from Baltimore, Maryland. I'm a businessperson, a Democrat.

AL MONTGOMERY, Republican, Tennessee: I'm Al Montgomery. I'm from Germantown, Tennessee, and I'm a registered Republican.

MIKE DONLEY, Republican, Colorado: I'm Mike Donley. I'm a sometime rancher in southeastern Colorado, and I am a Republican.

SHARA KHON DUNCAN, Democrat, Maryland: Hi, I'm Shara Khon Duncan. I'm from Baltimore, Maryland. I'm a registered Democrat, and I'm a schoolteacher.

GWEN IFILL: Thank you all very much for joining us here. The president had a news conference this week in which he said there are two things that Americans should be making their voting decisions on this year: who can protect you, and who can lower your taxes.

I want to start with you, Pat. Are those the two things that you're using to make your decision?

PAT THIELEN: Not really. Taxes are a part of life, and it takes taxes to run the country. And unless they absolutely go crazy with taxes, that's not a big thing high on my priority list. But protecting me is big. I want to feel like I'm protected.

GWEN IFILL: How about you, Shara Khon? What is your sense of that?

SHARA KHON DUNCAN: I am concerned about where my tax dollars go, not necessarily how much taxes I get, although the lower, the better. I just want it well-spent.

As far as security is concerned, I'm not particularly comfortable with the definition of what our security is. I think there are a lot of things we need to do at home to protect ourselves, but I don't necessarily think that what we are doing with our foreign policy is protecting us the way that it should.

And it's not a big issue for me. I have other issues regarding education and how we help and care for our children that are much more important to me, and the elderly.

GWEN IFILL: I'd like to talk about all of those issues, but I'm going to start by talking about Iraq. One of you described this as the elephant in the room.

Mike Donley, first, for you, how important is the war in Iraq as a decider in your vote this year?

MIKE DONLEY: It's important. I don't know that I would consider it the overriding concern, but it's an important concern. My concerns about Iraq are not necessarily that it exists, but how we deal with it.

I think the war was absolutely necessary. I don't believe that they anticipated very well what was likely to transpire afterwards, but the war in Iraq is obviously a concern. It relates directly to our security, and I think that is an overriding issue this year.

GWEN IFILL: Sandy Skaggs, what do you think about the war?

SANDY SKAGGS: I do believe it's the elephant in the room, and I believe that, even though all politics are local, that the Iraq war is a huge factor in this election.

And I believe that there's been quite a bit of fear-mongering connecting the war with our personal safety here, and I think there's been way too much of that. I think we need to think about getting these troops home. But it's just reminding me of Vietnam; I do believe it's turning into a quagmire.

GWEN IFILL: David Han?

DAVID HAN: It's actually a personal issue for me. Several friends' children are in Iraq fighting, and I'd like to see them come back alive, safely, and it's an important issue.

But you know what I was thinking? Right now, the Republicans and Democrats are each blaming each other with the different points. And I was thinking, if we have a Republican president, maybe we should go for the Democrat-controlled Congress so that they could negotiate, they could argue with one another and come up with a meeting of minds to conclude a war in Iraq, so that at the end they cannot blame one another, but they'll come to a conclusion, hopefully soon.

GWEN IFILL: And I want to bring Al Montgomery in, because he's been listening to all of this and clearly thinking about it. I'm curious about where you come down in this. You're from Tennessee, where there's a very big Senate race going on right now...

AL MONTGOMERY: Right, we've got...

GWEN IFILL: ... and this has been debated.

AL MONTGOMERY: Basically, of course, Harold Ford, Jr., had voted on the Iraq resolution and voted for the war. And now he says, if he knew what he knew then, he would have voted against the war. And I think there's a lot of them, same deal. You know, they say, "Well, I voted this way, but if I know what I knew now, I'd have voted this other way."

GWEN IFILL: Maurice?

MAURICE GOODMAN: At this stage of the game, we do know where you have, at the end of the day, a mess. That's what we know, so there has to be a splitting of the difference. Cutting and running knows -- we know that we're going to have utter chaos if we leave immediately.

Staying the course means that our troops, who are very brave and valiant, are going to be referees in the midst of a civil war, so that's not useful. So we have to do something in the middle.

Now, if something that James Baker and the Iraq Study Group are going to come out and tell us something along the lines of splitting the difference, of controlling certain disparate areas of Iraq, and then eventually easing our troops out, that's something that we have to put on the table.

GWEN IFILL: Eduardo Romero, what do you think about that, middle ground or just get out?

EDUARDO ROMERO: I hear more optimism in that voice. It's not going to be chaos; it is chaos. I don't see any positive way out of this. And, for me, this election -- how it relates to the election is that it's sort of we're all taking a deep breath.

We hear all these different voices; we hear all these different indictments. But the study group is waiting until after the elections to give us any advice. If that's not cynical politics, I don't know what is. Why can't we vote on that sort of information and with that sort of information in hand?

The immigration debate

GWEN IFILL: Let me steer you back to another issue that came up a lot when we were traveling the country this year, and that's the issue of immigration and immigration reform. I'm curious which one of you would consider this to be a major issue in deciding your vote.

PAT THIELEN: I will address that. It's a major issue. I'm basically a border state in Arizona, and I run a business. And the construction industry, all the businesses in Arizona that I know use Hispanic labor. There's got to be a way to -- we need that labor force.

We need a larger labor pool than we have now, and there has to be a way of dealing with this. I was thinking the other day, you know, if we sent one-third of the aid to Mexico that we send to these countries who do nothing but want to kill us, maybe there would be a better relationship there.

MIKE DONLEY: There's nothing wrong with immigration. The country was based and founded on immigration. The problem with immigration is the sheer magnitude of it at this point, the sheer magnitude of the illegal immigration.

And my feeling is that the politicians, regardless of their party, are not willing to face up to this and address this issue, something they'd much really rather ignore. And as a result, more people come in illegally. Some minor steps have been taken, but I don't think a 700-mile fence is going to resolve the issue.

GWEN IFILL: Maurice?

MAURICE GOODMAN: I'm pretty much there with him in terms of, for God's sake, let's drop the fence issue once and for all. We're not East Berlin; we're not East Germany.

Second thing, the guest-worker program sounds about right. If they're here, they are here. Let them work, and then encourage them to become citizens.

GWEN IFILL: Isn't that amnesty? Isn't that what Republicans say?

MAURICE GOODMAN: At the end of the day, it's not amnesty, because you have to really, really just get folks to follow the laws that are on the books, get that going, and be sure not to criminalize and stigmatize people who have come here honestly to work and raise their families.

GWEN IFILL: David Han?

DAVID HAN: Immigration is a very important issue, but I think the economy, tax, Social Security, education, national security are more important an issue than immigration.

GWEN IFILL: David just mentioned that he thinks there are other issues, and you said the same thing, which is that there is the education and there is the economy, and these are concerns that you have. Do you feel that you're hearing people who are running for office talk about that this year?

SHARA KHON DUNCAN: No. I think the emphasis, as always, is on the war in Iraq. I just don't think that's enough to base our decision on whether or not someone gets elected. The middle class seems to be ignored, in a way, and the issues that concern us are being ignored. And that is the health care, the education, programs for our children, programs for the elderly. Those things affect us every single day. Those things are more important to me, and I'm just not hearing that.

GWEN IFILL: David?

DAVID HAN: You know, I can't understand why the media or the Washington Post or the local papers are spending more time talking about Mike Foley (sic) and Dennis Hastert, whereas we're more interested in the economy, in Social Security, retirement, education, crimes around us. That's where I'm a little bit confused.

GWEN IFILL: The corruption issue doesn't trickle down at all for you?

SHARA KHON DUNCAN: Let's put it this way: When the story hit, it's deplorable. It's something that none of us ever want to see. We would hope that they would handle it better in the future, but you can have a hotline. That's not going to do anything to solve the problem that already occurred and the lack of attention to that problem. At the same time, once it's done, we have to get back to the issues that face all of us.

AL MONTGOMERY: The amazing thing is that you have a Republican president, a Republican-controlled Senate, and a Republican-controlled House of Representatives, and they can't get anything done.

GWEN IFILL: And why is that?

AL MONTGOMERY: Beats me. I mean, you know, I think they've all been up there so long that, you know, "You scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours, and we'll all go down the road together at some point in time."

GWEN IFILL: Well, if that's true, and people say they can't get anything done, it's time for a change, does that make you go and vote to throw the bums out, Eduardo?

EDUARDO ROMERO: Well, I think democracy depends on accountability, and I think that there's going to be -- I think that's going to be a large measure of what I feel people might vote on.

But, Gwen, I think I need to go back to the immigration issue...

GWEN IFILL: Sure.

EDUARDO ROMERO: ... really quickly, as well. I think we heard this is an economic challenge, but it's also a moral challenge. And I think we've heard some -- you asked about amnesty. I remember when amnesty was not a dirty word.

GWEN IFILL: Yes, when did that happen?

EDUARDO ROMERO: But somehow, it's switched, and "illegal" for me is a dirty word. One can say one breaks the laws, but tell that to that pre-school kid who now is determined to be an illegal alien.

PAT THIELEN: In Arizona, if you have a person working for you whose Social Security number doesn't match up, you will get a letter. And you have 60 days to get that person legal. And if you can't do it in 60 days, which is almost an impossibility, then you have to let that person go, but they're completely unemployed.

EDUARDO ROMERO: Can I respond to that? When you say that person's illegal, we know, I would assume -- and forgive me, I don't want to assume for everybody -- we're thinking immediately of a Hispanic, of a Latino. We're not thinking about an Eastern European in Boston; we're not thinking of that Eastern European in Chicago, where there's plenty of that activity. But there's not that language being spoken that way.

And so I hear that there's an economic reason to make change, but there is a moral reason. This is racism at its root, and the political language just lets it slide.

Making their vote count

GWEN IFILL: What do you do November 7th to make sure that the people you have a chance to vote for listen to those concerns that you have about the future of the party and the future of the nation?

MAURICE GOODMAN: Well, first off, the American people have to be involved. I mean, absolutely be informed and go to vote like your life depended on it, act like your life depends on it, because it does. I mean, your life as in livelihood, your actual life, considering what's going on in the Middle East and everything in between.

We must scream at our leaders that they must think about solving the problems of health care, solving the problem of education, absolutely coming up with a good solution in the Middle East so that our soldiers can come home and we take care of the ones that have been injured.

GWEN IFILL: Sandy Skaggs?

SANDY SKAGGS: The discourse, I think, Gwen, has become so brutal. All you have to do -- when I left Missouri, I mistakenly thought I was getting away from the commercials. But when I turned my TV on in my hotel room last night, it was the same commercials, and the same vitriol, and the same just anger and name-calling, without addressing these issues that Maurice just mentioned.

AL MONTGOMERY: You know, and through this campaign season we've been in, it seems like all the recent ones -- presidential, Congress, this type of thing -- turns into a mud-slinging contest. Who can drive up whose negatives the most in order to win?

GWEN IFILL: Does that make you just want to stay home?

AL MONTGOMERY: Yeah. A lot of people just simply go by how the negatives are run, and that's how the election is won. It's not based on how qualified the person is.

MIKE DONLEY: The voter needs to educate himself, to be sure, but the voter also cannot afford to stay home. And I think and I fear that a lot of that is likely to transpire this time around.

Ultimately, if you can't make a decision, I think you have to rely on the principles and the ideas that underlie your political philosophy. For me, that means that I don't see the Democrats as a serious alternative. And while I'm dismayed and upset with many of the things the Republicans have done, I don't feel that's any justification for shooting myself in the foot.

EDUARDO ROMERO: I don't really have too many expectations for this election round. This table gives me a little hope, and that's great. I think that this election will probably show some level of accountability on lots of the issues that we've talked about today.

And, you know, this is, I think, what marks our society and determines who we are on that day. And I look forward to a lot of people voting, and I look forward to that next day.

GWEN IFILL: Well, this table gave me a lot of hope tonight, as well. Thank you all for joining us.