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Political Passions Near a Fever Pitch

Times Staff Writer

Ordinarily, neighbors would no more discuss their political leanings than pass around their bankbooks. Impassioned conversation usually stops at Illinois State University basketball.

But this year is different: People can’t remember the last time they felt so worked up about an election.

Guy Hanna has planted not one handmade red, white and blue wooden elephant on his corner front lawn, but nine.

At the Democratic campaign office in Normal’s quaint downtown, the waiting list for John F. Kerry signs last month was 500 long and growing.

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Mary Ann Stone plastered a “W 04" bumper sticker on her car, after deciding her Kerry-leaning bosses at the kitchen store where she works could just learn to deal with it.

And Desiree Accetturo, a 21-year-old veteran of the war in Iraq, was so eager to vote President Bush out of office that she burst breathless through the door of the campaign headquarters for the senator from Massachusetts, desperate to know her polling address more than a month early.

It is a similar picture across the country, no matter whether the state is red, blue or battleground. With the nation at war, the electorate divided and the candidates in a bitter fight, voter enthusiasm is boiling over. The result has been both a jolt of grass-roots democracy and a deepening chasm of polarization.

Recent polls show nearly twice as many voters as in 2000 are following this election “very closely.” Some experts predict election day turnout will be the highest in 30 years.

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And as the voter registration deadline passed Monday in more than a dozen states, election officials around the country reported that they had been forced to add staff to handle the paperwork from hundreds of thousands of new voters showing interest in casting ballots next month.

In Normal, the preelection atmosphere is tense but polite. But elsewhere in the country, the sharpened feelings about this year’s campaign have turned some otherwise tranquil suburban blocks into scenes of petty vandalism, mean pranks and suspicions.

Regina Barker-Barzel, 56, an active Republican in Arlington, Va., said the air was twice let out of the front tire on her Buick LeSabre last month. She could only conclude that it was the work of someone unhappy with her Bush-Cheney lawn signs and bumper sticker.

Blocks away, Madelyn Callahan, a 49-year-old newsletter editor and mother of two, threw her first fundraiser for Kerry. She spent $900 landscaping her yard in red, white and blue flowers and dotted it with Kerry signs, only to discover the teenage son of a neighboring Republican family spitting on the grass. Someone ripped the Kerry bumper sticker off her van, and the paint job was keyed.

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Dennis Moss, a 54-year-old plumber outside of Oklahoma City, is private about his politics. A loyal Democrat in a conservative state, he secured a money order to donate to the party rather than write a check that would circulate through the local bank for all to see.

When his 14-year-old daughter announced to her private school teachers, “I’m a Democrat,” the backlash was so unpleasant that her parents moved her to a more tolerant public school. “They were after her like a dog on a bone,” Moss said. “There was endless taunting from the other kids. The last day, she was left crying.”

Experts cite a range of factors driving the political passion: lingering Democratic rage over the Florida recount, the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the abiding Republican belief that Bush is the only candidate who can keep the nation safe. People believe that this election matters.

“I’ve traveled to at least 36 states since the first of the year and talked with thousands of people,” said Charlie Cook, a nonpartisan campaign analyst. “And one thing comes through loud and clear: Voters see George W. Bush and John Kerry as very different people who would be very different presidents and take the country in very different directions.”

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A recent Washington Post poll found that two out of three voters surveyed called this election one of the most important of their lives. From Normal to Los Angeles, Washington and New York, people speak of fears that are almost primal. The right dreads the prospect of trying to survive another terrorist attack without the person they see as resolved and capable at the wheel. The left cringes at the thought of four more years of a president who they believe made the world more perilous.

“We are in danger,” declared Margaret Waimon, 81, of Normal, who is walking precincts and straining the limits of her fixed income to support Kerry. Still, she lamented, “I just don’t feel I am doing enough.”

“If Bush were to lose this election,” said Harry Hasbun of Manassas, Va., “I would cross my fingers that we would get through the next four years.” The manager of a Ford dealership, Hasbun, 47, has fired off countless e-mails to his liberal family in Lodi, Calif., and taken to bringing up politics “whenever somebody walks in the door.”

Further deepening the divide is the growing reach of talk radio and cable news shows that reflect a single point of view -- a trend so pervasive it has spawned a new word, “narrowcasting.”

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Thirty years ago, people watched the same three major networks. Today, voters can choose news with a spin, one that often reduces the other side’s beliefs to something immaterial, wrong or laughable.

“You go to the outlet that confirms your point of view, and that reinforces the division.... That has some social consequences,” said Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta.

In Normal, home to 45,000 people two hours south of Chicago, rows of corn bow in the afternoon breeze. As if frozen in the 1950s, an old theater downtown still shows movies, and Shorty’s Barbershop, where Rush Limbaugh sounds off on the radio every afternoon, has been cutting hair above the ears since 1922.

Normal and its neighbor, Bloomington, are comfortable Republican suburbs in the middle of a decidedly Democratic state. Illinois is considered a lost cause for Bush. Neither the president nor Kerry has visited this part of the state, and political ads do not flood the airwaves.

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Still, four times as many Republicans as in past years showed up at the usually Democrat-dominated Labor Day parade, marching to the strains of “God Bless the USA” blaring from the tape deck of a Jaguar convertible. One woman on the sidelines was so moved she burst into tears.

“We’ve had 400 new volunteers call asking if they could do something,” said Kathy Michael, a local GOP worker. “Republicans are always ginned up for a race around here, but this time it’s bigger.”

With residents solidly embedded in separate camps, casual conversation in Normal has become a minefield.

Peter Krueger, who can’t stand Bush, feels “ostracized” by his GOP co-workers at the Internal Revenue Service distribution center, where he works part time. “When we gather at the break table, they don’t make eye contact with me,” said Krueger, 70, a lifelong Normal resident. “Conversation stops when I walk up.”

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The language shouted from passing cars at Hanna’s homemade elephants on the corner of Gloucester Circle “is not fit to print” -- especially since he added the 4-foot light-up mammoth his sister gave him for his birthday. “I don’t care. If they don’t like it, they can make donkeys,” he said.

In other communities, people are going to great lengths to make sure their candidate is elected.

Bill Bollenbach, a 51-year-old senior systems analyst at a utility company in Tulsa, Okla., had grown lazy about political involvement until this season. “It takes an increasing outrage index to pry me off my rear end. Bush has supplied this in spades,” said Bollenbach, who plans to drive six hours to Missouri on election day to help get Democrats to the polls.

The robust debate over war, terrorism, jobs, healthcare and other issues has helped others find their voice. Iva Gibson has been a member of a conservative church in Peoria for years. She kept her Democratic views a secret until growing anger toward Bush caused her to stage what she called “the political version of coming out of the closet.”

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“For the first time ever in my life I have been very vocal with my friends. I can no longer stay silent,” she said. “There has been some minor coolness.”

The increasingly bitter partisan divide that has come to define American politics has had significant consequences in Washington, where the political elite gridlock more often than they compromise.

But many American neighborhoods seem to be handling their differences better, finding ways to stay loyal to their neighbors and their ideals and still keep the peace.

Listening to Limbaugh was worse than having his teeth cleaned for Donald Armstrong, a 62-year-old electrician from Bloomington, so his dentist kindly turned the radio off.

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As soon as Michael, the Illinois Republican Party activist, realized that not everyone at the Taste of Country Festival in Lexington thought the flip-flop sandals bearing John Kerry’s face were funny, she put them away. “I had two very angry Democrats get in my face,” she said. “I felt bad.”

Leta Hamm’s Happy Hour Group, which has met without incident in Fort Myers, Fla., two Fridays a month for 17 years, recently agreed not to discuss presidential politics. “It’s not worth losing a friend over,” said the retired Hamm.

And that does seem to be where many draw the line.

On one street in suburban Maryland, a house with three Bush signs sits next door to a house with three Kerry signs. A few feet away hangs a seventh sign, unmolested.

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It reads: “Block Party, Saturday Night.”


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