Divided Wis. Voters Unite In Debate Viewing

A group in Wisconsin is trying to heal that state's bitter partisan divide by holding monthly meetings and forums to discuss political issues with in a friendly and more civil way. But could they remain civil while watching Tuesday night's presidential debate?

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Last night's second presidential debate produced more friction and fireworks than the first, and that didn't seem to bother a group of voters in a state that knows a lot about political bickering, Wisconsin. NPR's David Schaper watched the debate with roughly a dozen Democrats and Republicans who have dedicated themselves to bridging their state's political divide.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: They are all smiles, this group of both staunch liberals and conservatives, as they greet one another at Mariner's Inn on the outskirts of Madison, Wisconsin. But just like in a high school lunchroom, they sit with their own at tables of right and left as the debate begins.

CANDY CROWLEY: Good evening, from Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. I'm Candy Crowley from CNN's "State Of The Union."

SCHAPER: The group is called Reach Out Wisconsin, formed in the wake of the sharp and bitter divide that gaped open in the state after the election of Governor Scott Walker almost two years ago. Their goal is to foster respect and understanding in politics with civil discourse. But that doesn't stop at least a few from snickering at some of the president's answers, such as this explanation of why gas prices were so much lower when he took office.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Because the economy was on the verge of collapse.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Still is!

SCHAPER: And from the tables on the left, there are audible groans to Mitt Romney's promotion of more drilling for oil and gas. When it's over, Wisconsinites on both sides say this is the best debate yet.

SCOTT GRABINS: I do like it when they let the candidates talk to one another.

SCHAPER: Scott Grabins is a conservative and co-founder of Reach Out Wisconsin, and he says he enjoys watching the candidates sniping and sparring back and forth.

S. GRABINS: Because I think those are some of the most honest spots of the debate because that's unscripted, that's where they're going back and forth and it's rapid fire. You got to think on your feet. And I think that's when what they really think starts to come out.

SCHAPER: Grabins gives Mitt Romney high marks for his debate performance, especially on jobs and the economy. But he also thinks President Obama did quite well. His wife, Carol Grabins, says Mr. Obama has trouble with the facts, especially in his response to the attack on the American consulate in Libya.

CAROL GRABINS: If you're talking about being truthful, no, I will give him an F for flunking the truth.

SCHAPER: For liberal Ron Dolan(ph), it was good to see a presidential comeback.

RON DOLAN: You can't just roll over like, you know, Obama did in the first debate. You have to show a little backbone and he did that. And he stuck to his guns. It was a little more spirited, didn't seem completely out of it.

SCHAPER: But Dolan says he actually thinks Mitt Romney is the better debater.

DOLAN: You know, good for Romney. He does look presidential. But at the same time, when he's telling me he's an advocate for women's rights, renewable energy, the middle class, I mean, he's more of a snake oil salesman. He's selling me something. I don't believe him.

SCHAPER: But the left-leaning Dolan says the president was selling him something, too, in trying to defend his jobs record. Conservative Todd Osborne(ph) of Cross Plains, Wisconsin, says he found both candidates to be shading the truth.

TODD OSBORNE: They seldom tell a flat-out lie. They tell a part of the story or the part they want you to know and conveniently leave out the rest.

SCHAPER: It's a point of agreement with many of the dozen or so here. And while no one will be changing votes after this debate, all say they enjoy hearing from those with opposing views. Susan Kimball(ph) of Spring Green, Wisconsin, who was attending her first Reach Out Wisconsin event, puts it this way.

SUSAN KIMBALL: It's nice to hear both sides and people have respect for each other's opinions instead of animosity and anger.

SCHAPER: And all agree there is far too little of that in politics today. David Schaper, NPR News, in Madison, Wisconsin.

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