Omaha Voters Unhappy with Status Quo
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Congress heads home this Memorial Day weekend for a weeklong recess and constituents are likely to be restless. A new CBS news poll shows a record 72 percent of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track.
NPR national correspondent Linda Wertheimer visited the normally Republican suburbs of Omaha, Nebraska, and talked to two groups of voters.
LINDA WERTHEIMER: We met first with a group of professional people, mostly in their 30s, all taking a seminar run by Leadership Omaha, the chamber of commerce project aimed at developing community leaders.
These are generally independent voters, though all have voted for Republicans at least once. They say the Republican Party is on the wrong track, talking now about abortion and gay marriage.
Mr. JOE GERSTANDT (Diversity Director, Alegent Health): There's a large group of people in this country that believe in smaller government, that believe in balanced budget. I think that's a pretty popular concept. Where they run into trouble is strict adherence to a couple of social issues.
Ms. AMY HAASE (Urban Planning Consultant, RDG Planning and Design): There's maybe more pressing issues that really need to be addressed and dealt with - the war, the shrinking maybe of the middle class, and the growing of the lower and the upper - the divide we're seeing economically within our society. These are - I see as more important issues.
WERTHEIMER: That was Amy Haase. She's an urban planning consultant and Joe Gerstandt who is diversity director for a local hospital. The Pew Research Center polls also suggest voters are drawing back from evangelical Christian influence on the GOP. Joe Gerstandt said yes and no.
Mr. GERSTANDT: My parents, who I love to death, as long as the Republicans put someone in the White House who is a man of God, nothing else matters. It's good versus evil, so it's not about finding common ground. So I think that while our generation may be changing, our parent's generation is still - a lot of them are still locked in one end of one party.
WERTHEIMER: If there are shifting loyalties among grassroots Republicans, one symptom might be the recent rise in the polls of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Although widely admired for his leadership after 9/11, Giuliani is not a social conservative. This Omaha group may or may not support him, but they explained why he matters. Jeremy Falke is human resources director at Creighton Medical Center.
Mr. JEREMY FALKE (Human Resources Director, Creighton Medical Center): He is not afraid, at least so far, to admit his more neutral stance on social issues as a Republican. Most recently this abortion issue, and that appeals to me a bit.
WERTHEIMER: In past presidential races, Republicans have done well in the suburbs, courting soccer moms ferrying their children around the edges of cities, and more recently security moms upset about terrorism. So we went out to the Omaha suburb of Papillion to meet a group we might call SUV moms. We had lunch in Jamie Hermans' basement playroom surrounded by lots of little kids.
(Soundbite of children playing)
WERTHEIMER: Lindsey Smith drove over from Western Iowa. She and Jamie are best friends. Lindsey Smith is an outspoken Republican and not the Giuliani kind.
Ms. LINDSAY SMITH (Republican): I see Giuliani as a Democrat in Republican clothing.
WERTHEIMER: Lindsay Smith describes herself as a hardcore conservative, opposed to abortion, in favor of deporting all illegal immigrants, and she's afraid the Democrats will win in 2008.
Ms. SMITH: I'm really scared it'll be a Democrat because so many people are angry at Republicans just because of the war and because of the economy - the housing market, gas prices, everything - everything that goes on in the courts, Scooter Libby, on and on and on. I don't - I think a lot of even Republicans, even a lot of hardcore Republicans have turned against them just because it's like there's so many things messed up.
WERTHEIMER: In this group, we also had several Democrats and independents, women who reflect NPR's most recent poll showing the GOP losing ground to the Democratic Party.
Ashley Williamson(ph) is studying to be a nurse practitioner. She is a social conservative, not switching sides but she shares the others' concerns.
Ms. ASHLEY WILLIAMSON (Social Conservative, Republican Supporter): I'm pro-life. I think that we deport everyone. There's just some other issues that I would love for a Republican to win. But I see a Democrat winning.
WERTHEIMER: Can you identify what you think your friends and neighbors think's wrong?
Ms. WILLIAMSON: Everyone's mad because of the current economy. We have gas prices. The housing market sucks for sellers.
WERTHEIMER: Well, the president has said over and over again, and the stock market would appear to bear him out, that the economy is, you know, turning over nicely. But it doesn't feel that way to you?
Ms. WILLIAMSON: Not when I'm paying $3.29 a gallon, it doesn't feel that way to me at all. It doesn't reflect the rest of America. It doesn't reflect us in Nebraska. I mean, maybe if you have a lot of stock. Warren Buffett, probably affects him a little bit.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SMITH: I think this is probably the first time Lindsay and I have ever agreed on something. I don't think that the average person has seen the upward swing in the economy that Bush keeps talking about. You look at the gas prices, especially here in Nebraska, because if you want to go somewhere, you're driving a considerable distance, and so I think you're hit a little harder by that.
Ms. STEPHANIE MULLIN (Republican Supporter): I would really like to go home to North Dakota to see my family, and I don't think I'll be able to do that. They're going to have to come see me, because I can't afford all that.
WERTHEIMER: In that group, you also heard from Lindsay Smith, Jamie Hermans and Stephanie Mullin. Mullin says the war is a big issue. She and others drove to Iowa to hear Barack Obama speak and liked him. Hillary Clinton has fans here too. But we also heard doubts about the top Democrats' chances. This is Darcy Lewis(ph).
Ms. DARCY LEWIS (Republican Supporter): I hope it's going to be Democrats, obviously. But I am very concerned that there's a lot of people out there who are not ready for a biracial president or a woman president, which I think is a shame.
WERTHEIMER: Do you see a Republican that you think you could be happy with?
Ms. LEWIS: My husband's a fan of Giuliani's, and like Lindsay said, more of a - to me a social - socially he's a Democrat, which I could live with him.
WERTHEIMER: We'll give the last word to Lindsay Smith, balancing a baby on her hip, sending a message that even in conservative strongholds on the Plains, people feel the Republican Party has failed them.
Ms. LEWIS: No.
Ms. SMITH: The Republicans that aren't ready to leave the Republican Party but aren't happy with how it's been going, I think that they will vote for Giuliani because he's kind of a compromise between the two parties.
WERTHEIMER: Do you think there are many people like that? I mean, do you have friends and neighbors or family members or somebody who might fall into that category?
Ms. SMITH: That aren't happy with the Republicans? My entire family.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SMITH: Except for me.
WERTHEIMER: Distress signals and warning signs from around Omaha, which is almost exactly in the middle of the country.
Linda Wertheimer, NPR News.
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