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In a Bush Stronghold, Some Are Losing Heart

Times Staff Writer

When the price of stamps went up another penny awhile back, it was more than one man could stand. Waiting in line at the post office here, he spotted the nearest politician -- who happened to be the mayor of this friendly little town known as the City of Hospitality -- and took a swing at him.

“People don’t always understand what’s going on 5,000 miles away, but they know what’s happening in their own hometown,” said Mayor John Saraga, who ducked the punch that day. “And if things aren’t good for them, they are going to hold somebody responsible, whether it’s the mayor, the governor or the president.”

Today, there is a lot more on the minds of the people of Xenia than the price of postage. The downturn in the economy has hammered Ohio, costing it 185,000 jobs over the last 2 1/2 years. Ninety-four of them are here at the Hooven Allison rope factory, set to shut down this month after 134 years in business.

The citizens will be asked to approve three local tax increases this fall to fend off cuts in school, city and hospital services.

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And President Bush has attached an $87-billion price tag to an Iraq mission some here believe was well-intentioned but badly conceived.

“If things don’t improve it could be a disaster for him,” said Saraga, a Republican who supports Bush. “He’s going to pay the price, unfortunately.”

Concern about the war in Iraq -- and the Bush administration’s rationale for the open-ended U.S. presence there -- has rippled across the country, nowhere more than through this city of 24,000 outside Dayton. For many here, that concern is inextricably linked with worries about the economy.

Bush won by less than 4% in Ohio, one of roughly a dozen “swing” states that will be hotly contested in next year’s presidential election. Ohio is seen as crucial to his hopes for winning a second term -- no Republican has ever claimed the White House without it.

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But there are signs that support for the president is eroding, with a recent statewide poll showing his approval rating down 11 points since shortly after the war began.

Even here in Republican-dominated Greene County -- where an obstetrician put a “Support President Bush and Our Troops” sign in his waiting room last spring and got requests for 100 like it -- there are growing misgivings about the costs of lives and dollars in Iraq.

“I won’t vote for Bush again,” said Penny Fox, 47, who opened Fox’s Antiques and Such off Main Street in May but kept her part-time job at Kmart just in case. “He just came on too powerful, too gung-ho, too cocky.”

Like many in Xenia, Fox backed the war at first. But now she is suspicious because no weapons of mass destruction have been found, and she is disturbed by the stream of body bags coming home -- more since Bush declared the major combat over.

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Just about everyone here knows of a soldier overseas. The City of Xenia paid $300,000 in overtime to plug vacancies from employees called to reserve service. Eighteen photos of soldiers in Iraq hang in the lobby of the Xenia Daily Gazette.

Pictures of two of Fox’s friends from Kmart are there. Their unhappiness is evident from their letters.

“At first they were excited and pumped up,” Fox said. “Now they’re depressed and want to come home. I’m upset for them. I don’t think they need to be there any longer.”

To be sure, plenty of Xenians remain solidly behind the war and the president. Bush may have squeaked to victory in the state of Ohio, but he carried Greene County handily.

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Here, conservative values run deep. There are more churches -- 47 at last count -- than bars. Crime is low. High school football games fill the stands, and NASCAR fans will race anything on wheels, including school buses.

Edged by farmland, 200-year-old Xenia is anchored by a stone courthouse that has survived decades of tornadoes. The worst one, in 1974, tossed railroad cars through grocery store windows. Half the town was blown away, 10,000 people were left homeless and 33 were killed, many at the local root beer stand.

But Xenia always recovers and rebuilds. Lately, though, it has suffered from economic malaise, as some people worked six-day weeks to keep up.

“These Colors Don’t Run,” intones the patriotic window display at Xenia Archery, owned for 31 years by Stan Freelan, 65. His sign supports the mission in Iraq, but his more pressing concern is the duplex he and his wife can’t afford. A loan application for the property lies facedown on the counter. The interest rates crept up and out of their reach. Business has been slow most of the summer. And if the city thinks it’s getting his vote on a tax increase, it can think again.

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“Xenia wastes more money than it needs,” he declared, a line of crossbows and arrows behind him, photographs of slain deer dotting his glass countertop.

He has problems of his own. “Business took a drastic dive -- I mean drastic -- since the first of August. Nobody’s doing good.”

He doesn’t blame Bush, though. “One man can’t change the economy, hon,” he tells his visitor. He says he believes Bush embodies American strength and is on the right track.

“I don’t believe in killin’,” he said. “But if it has to be done, I believe we have to get it done.”

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Next door, Xenia’s mixed views on the war are writ small this Saturday morning inside Fast Fashions on Main Street, a men’s clothing store that offers a rack of $75 “zoot suits” in every color and an assortment of derbies to match.

Bob Pry, 62, is working the counter. He endorsed the war and still does, and thinks we should “eradicate” Saddam Hussein, though he’d like to see a little more help from the United Nations. America’s image sometimes gives him pause.

“We need to quit looking like the bully,” Pry said. “Sometimes I don’t think President Bush realizes ... he comes off arrogant.” But that wouldn’t sway his support for the president. “Not at this point,” he said.

Jesus Delossantos, 71, stood by quietly. A retired haberdasher, he’s here helping out his friend, looking sharp in a shirt the color of papaya and a tie of unforgettable geometry.

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“I know for a fact I won’t vote for Bush,” he softly confided when asked, another war supporter turned skeptic. “I think the weapons thing was a farce. They just wanted to go in there.”

A retired Air Force dietician and lifelong Democrat, Delossantos worked in Vietnam’s largest hospital, putting together special diets for wounded GIs. “They’re sitting ducks now,” he said of the troops abroad. “And they’re just kids. Either get them some support or get them out. I don’t want to see a Vietnam again.”

In walked Bill McDavid, 66, in the market for a new blue suit for church. An Air Force veteran of the Korean War, he doesn’t like what he’s seen. “I think Bush lied to the troops, I really do. They lied about the weapons of mass destruction. They said the war was over and the troops are still dying -- that’s what upsets me,” he said, helping himself to a squirt of cologne from the tester on the counter.

Here, the war and the economy seem inextricably linked, and many believe one is making the other worse. The military has always lifted up this town. Wright-Patterson Air Force Base -- a think tank where the next generation of American jets exists on paper -- is just 15 minutes away, and Xenia is not ungrateful for the 15,000 jobs or the strong defense it provides.

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But $87 billion sounds like a lot of money to a state that ranks third in the nation in manufacturing jobs lost since 2001. Many of the troops trying to maintain order in Iraq are native sons and daughters -- only five other states send more troops to the U.S. armed forces than Ohio.

Here, they are already feeling the fallout from budget deficits swelling in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, the state capital. Revenue from the state to local governments like Xenia has fallen 8% in the last 18 months.

The school district has been told it will not receive $1.5 million in funds the state promised through next March -- which could mean larger classes and fewer teachers and supplies. At the same time, the district must meet the “No Child Left Behind” mandate that is a centerpiece of Bush’s education policy, requiring student testing each year, annual progress reports and better-qualified teachers.

“The idea sounds good but it’s unrealistic,” said Robert P. Dillaplain, 54, a Xenia obstetrician who is also a member of the school board. The district desperately needs the emergency tax levy on the ballot this fall or cuts will be inevitable. But higher taxes are a hard sell, particularly in times like these. A similar increase failed seven times in the early 1990s. “We almost had to have a bake sale to pay teachers,” he recalled.

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While Dillaplain takes exception to Bush’s education policy, he supports his Iraq strategy. As a doctor, he knows what it is to be second-guessed when things don’t go as planned, and he says he believes Bush critics are doing just that.

“George Bush can’t tell everybody what he knows,” Dillaplain said, sitting in the backyard of his small horse farm with a cup of coffee, a “Support Bush” sign still standing at the end of the driveway. “His biggest strength is he doesn’t waffle. He’s very smart because he doesn’t waste any time explaining his decisions and his mistakes. He’s decisive.”

He predicts the people of Greene County will stick by the president through the long haul. “There’s a big difference between disagreeing with the captain of the ship and changing the captain of the ship,” he said.

But from where Darla Parrish sits, behind her desk at the dying Hooven Allison plant, a new captain might not look like such a bad idea. She came to the brick building with its looming smokestack when she was 23, a single mother trying to support a 6-year-old son. She started as a machine operator and worked her way up; seven years ago they made her plant manager.

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Co-workers at Hooven Allison have become a second family, one that is unraveling as surely as the spools of yellow rope moving around on forklifts. A core group of about 20 have been there as long as 30 years. One of them, Gary Shook, left this month to take a new job. Parrish gave him a surprise party with balloons and cake at 7:30 in the morning. Shook’s eyes filled up. A week later, he was back to say hello.

Now, there are night-school applications on Parrish’s desk. At 43, she is going to learn real estate and home inspections. She’s looking forward to a new life, but is sad to watch the old place wind down. There are just 65 of the original 94 people left; the Saturday work has dried up and she’s the only manager.

“It’s a chance for a new career, a new beginning,” she said, but conceded, “It’s a bad time to go out there. If we went out when things were booming, we would have all felt better.”

Parrish sat in her living room recliner and watched the television as Bush addressed the nation Sept. 7, asking for $87 billion for Iraq. The war is not on her mind as much as the economy is, she said, but she follows the news.

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“I do not believe it was a mistake, but it wasn’t planned well-enough ahead. We should have gone in there, but with other countries. We were too alone in it. I think he just chose to go.”

She voted for Bush and liked his no-nonsense image. But as she watched, his words about fighting terrorism there to make streets safer here, his vision of giving Iraq back to the Iraqis, sounded sort of far-fetched, she said.

“I think he means very well by what he’s doing. He’s painting a pretty picture. But I believe reality and a dream are two different things.”

Mayor Saraga didn’t see the speech. His 3-week-old son was crying through the whole thing, so he read about it the next day in the Dayton Daily News. He has said for some time that the president needs to talk to the American people more and help them understand.

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Saraga, 49, knows about bad government intelligence firsthand. He spent 22 years in the Marines, serving in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf. Once, when 2,000 Marines were dispatched to rescue a spy ship from an island off Cambodia, intelligence officers said the east side of the island was heavily fortified so they should go in from the west. The trouble was, the aerial photograph was sent backward, so west was really east. Thirty-eight Marines died.

“Ever since then, when intel told me it was going to rain, I left my umbrella at home,” he said.

He thinks Bush got similarly bad advice. Now the war and the economy are putting people in a bad way. And although there are a lot of loyal Republicans in Ohio, there are a lot of independents too -- more than half of the 85,000 registered voters in Greene County, by his numbers. And if things don’t improve in the next year, they are likely to take their anger into the voting booth.

“What’s bothering people is they believe they are losing jobs because of the war,” he said. “We’re a manufacturing state. The recession is hurting. That’s causing people to ask questions. Whether or not they understand why they are mad, they are just mad, and they want to blame somebody.”

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