Road to November: In Bellevue, Neb., 'Mad About Everything'By Jennifer Steinhauer
BELLEVUE, Neb. – It was lunchtime at the Downtown Coffee Shop, and the only customers were a reporter and photographer from out of town. The talk turned to politics, and the coffee shop's owner, Chris Kouba, let it rip.
"I'm mad about everything," said Ms. Kouba, 48, who has owned the shop for nearly 25 years. "The whole bailout, the whole everything. Do you see my restaurant filled? Is anyone going to come save me? My business has decreased consistently over the last year. For 24 years I did not open on Sundays, because I want to go to church with my family. But I'm scared I'm not gonna be here, so I started doing that, because that is when people are here."
Ms. Kouba can't decide whom she should vote for, or if the outcome of the election will help her either way. "You grow up with everyone telling you how important your vote is," she said, her voice tinged with disgust, "and then Washington does what it wants."
Like Ms. Kouba, residents in this suburb of Omaha, which sits at the Iowa border, have watched gas prices climb and the continuing meltdown of the stock market with alarm. But the city is buffered in some ways by Offutt Air Force Base, which provides a steady stream of customers for area businesses from among the roughly 12,000 military and federal employees assigned to the base.
"That's what this town is, a military town," said Sabrina Schriefer, who cuts hair in a salon just yards from the entrance to the base. On a visit Sunday night to Omaha, Sarah Palin mentioned the base prominently in her remarks.
Bellevue, which began as a fur trading post, rose from obscurity in the 1890s with the opening of Fort Crook, which later became the airbase. On Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush, who was in Florida at the time of the terrorist attacks, flew to the base and held a video conference in an underground command bunker there before returning to Washington.
The minute a car crosses the truss bridge over the Missouri River that connects this town to Iowa, the culture of the town is revealed. An American flag hangs from every lamp post along Mission Avenue, the main road through downtown, and most residents seem to have some connection to either the base or someone retired from the Air Force.
Those who work on the base — or are married to someone who does — seemed as reliably Republican as the state of Nebraska itself. "Obama is the anti-Christ," said Jessie Puglisi, 22, whose husband is an airman. "I don't really agree with any of his policies. My husband feels the same way. He won't even buy a magazine if Obama's face is on it. We hang out with a lot of military people, and they all feel the same way."
Paula Banks, 34, pushed her shopping cart into the local WalMart before a rain shower began, and reflected the view of many conservatives, that Ms. Palin on the ticket is what assured her. "I was already kind of on the McCain side, but I had a little unsureness, and she just pushed me over."
But while Mr. McCain's support may be strong among members of the military, it is not universal. "Both my husband and I are retired from the Air Force, and so we hear things," said Lynn Sinnette, who is 58.
She continued: "We are both aware that he was a P.O.W., but also aware about a lot of things he has not, that has not pleased the troops. My neighbors are all retired military and I think all of them are leaning Obama, mainly because they feel McCain is not supporting them. We have friends whose children are on food stamps and they are active duty. It's just not right."
The economy has caused Ms. Sinnette, a registered Republican, to remain on the fence as well. "I personally know people who have lost their home, and McCain doesn't know how many houses he has, and that doesn't go over too well with me."
Generally speaking, when it comes to Nebraska, Obama supporters are not relevant to the end game here. But unlike every other state in the nation save Maine, Nebraska distributes some of its electoral votes by Congressional districts rather than awarding all of them to the candidate who wins statewide. The Second District, which encompassed both Bellevue and Omaha, is considered in play, which explains Ms. Palin's visit to the city last weekend.
Omaha is a fairly diverse city, with many of the same problems that other urban areas have, including a relatively high crime rate. Recently, there was a series of six shootings in the area over the course of one week. Further, a decline in nearby meatpacking business has hurt the local economy, and Omaha residents are worried with the rest of the nation about the troubles on Wall Street.
Republicans here mostly point to taxes and regulation as their driving issues. "We're in agriculture and small business, and to be successful, we need less regulation in Washington," said Greg Roehl, 44, who stood in line Sunday night to see Ms. Palin. "The only ticket we can find that on is the McCain-Palin one."
But Obama supporters are not hard to find in the city's Old Market area. "Obama has definitely gotten the Democrats who were on the sidelines off of those sidelines," said Matthew Winter, 25, a law student here. "It's a lot safer to say you're for Obama here than out in the counties."
The Times's Jennifer Steinhauer and Monica Almeida are traversing the country from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco to the George Washington Bridge in New York, chatting with voters about the presidential campaign. Follow along here.
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