Views of Iraq from Indiana

What do voters deep in the heartland of the United States think of the war in Iraq? Many U.S. military recruits come from rural areas — but is popular sentiment behind the conflict they're signing up to fight in? NPR's Linda Wertheimer reports from Indiana.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The situation in Iraq was one of the main topics at President Bush's news conference today. Opposition to the war continues to grow. A new CNN poll shows that more than 60 percent of Americans are now against it, the highest number since the fighting began. Here's how the president responded to a question today about public opinion.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Presidents care about whether people support their policies. I don't think that I don't care. Of course I care. But I understand why people are discouraged about Iraq. I can understand that. There is a - we live in a, you know, world in which people I guess hope things happen quickly.

And this is a situation where things don't happen quickly, because there's, you know, a very tough group of people using tactics, mainly the killing of innocent people, to achieve their objective. And they're skillful about how they do this. And they also know the impact of what it means on the consciousness of those of us who live in the free world. They know that.

And so, yeah, I care. I really do. I wish I, you know - and so therefore I'm going to spend a lot of time trying to explain as best I can, you know, why it's important for us to succeed in Iraq.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The war will likely play a big role in November's midterm elections. Last month NPR commissioned a poll in the 50 most competitive Congressional districts. It found that 61 percent of people in those areas think the country is on the wrong track and they site the war as the number one reason.

SIEGEL: NPR's Linda Wertheimer recently traveled to southern Indiana, home to three competitive Congressional races. She spoke with voters there about the war and the upcoming election.

LINDA WERTHEIMER reporting:

The small town of Dale in southern Indiana is in Lincoln country. President Lincoln spent part of his boyhood in that area. The town library is called the Lincoln Heritage Library. A local book club meets there. The librarian, Marcia Hicks, gathered six other members of the club to talk to us. Asked the right direction/wrong track question, a number clearly think the country's on the wrong track and they cited the war in Iraq.

Jerry Lidvak(ph) retired back to Dale as she said, and not exactly kidding, to be buried there. Don Aronoff(ph) is retired also. He used to direct a mental health center. But first, Jerry Lidvak.

Ms. JERRY LIDVAK (Resident of Dale, Indiana): It's on the wrong track. It's in the wrong rut, I should say. That's closer. If you've ever been on a horse that got hold of the reins and the rider was hanging on for dear life, not know which to do next, there you've got George Bush.

Mr. DON ARONOFF (Resident of Dale, Indiana): I used to think we couldn't have a president worse than Nixon. And now I think Nixon was a good president in comparison. I'm astounded by how much they've bungled everything and created that quagmire in Iraq that's just killing people.

WERTHEIMER: Did you expect President Bush to do a better job than you feel he is doing?

Mr. ARONOFF: Before the first term I thought he might be like his father, who I disagreed with, but he was within the realm of reason.

WERTHEIMER: Another view came from Don Tharpe(ph). He's worked as an investigator for Family Services. He was with Indiana's Department of Corrections. He supports President Bush.

Mr. DON THARPE (Resident of Dale, Indiana): Of course the war isn't going as well as I had hoped it would, but I think President Bush is trying to lead us in the right direction. I'm sure he's made mistakes. I think we're slow to catch onto the idea that we are in a pretty serious war with terrorism, and I think we need to wake up to that fact.

WERTHEIMER: Don Tharpe is watching what's happening with Israel and Hezbollah. He told us he's praying for Israel. We also talked to the Sherrers(ph). Bob is a retired Army doctor. Helen Sherrer was a nurse. He didn't like my right direction/wrong track question.

Mr. BOB SHERRER (Resident of Dale, Indiana): It's much more complex than that. Sometimes they couch questions in ways that force us to go one direction or another. So I think, going the right direction? I know there are some good, some bad. Violence breeds violence. I think that's something that the team that is working didn't get up in the morning and say gee, how can we screw this up hopelessly. They honestly gave it their best shot. It wouldn't have been what I would've done. I didn't vote for that particular team, and frankly when they went to war it was like, good grief, and I didn't know an Army officer that felt differently.

WERTHEIMER: Helen Sherrer, what about you? Does an issue that you think perhaps needs work?

Ms. HELEN SHEERER (Resident of Dale, Indiana): I think you vote, and your interest in politics depends on where you are in life. When I was young I was, you know, you're out to figure everything out. And you get a little older, you have different feelings. Like right now I want medical care. I want my Social Security check come. I want Medicare. All those things change with your own life and your own age.

WERTHEIMER: Helen Sheerer made one of the few comments we heard on domestic issues. Everyone else wanted to talk about things related to the war in Iraq. Our librarian, Marcia Hicks, works at the Lincoln Library, and she is concerned about civil liberties and free speech, especially attacks on critics of the war.

Ms. MARCIA HICKS (Librarian, Dale, Indiana): I think our freedom of speech is going away to some degree. I have been in other groups and when I express my opinion, people, you know, just like I've said something horrible. And you know, I try to listen to people and respect their opinion. I may not agree with it, but I think that we should all have the right to express our opinion. The war, of course, concerns me greatly. I did not approve in going into the war, and it's gotten worse and worse. And now with Israel and Hezbollah, what are we going to do there? It's scary to me, all of that is.

WERTHEIMER: The domestic stuff pales, Don Aronoff said at one point. He said the Iraq war has affected U.S. ability to influence other countries.

Mr. ARONOFF: Part of the whole problem with Iraq is how we've become unable in the case of Israel and Hezbollah to lead the world in finding a way to stop that. You know, how do we gain back that respect from people in other countries?

WERTHEIMER: You think that - consider that that has been lost?

Mr. ARONOFF: I think it's been lost. And I think that's the root of the terrorism, and there are tens and hundreds of thousands of people all over the rest of the world who don't respect this country, and a whole lot of them in South Asia and the Middle East, who think we are the devil. And that's where the next suicide bombers are going to come from. And one these days they will come here and something will get blown up. And we're not doing anything to reach out to them. Instead we're pushing them away.

Mr. THARPE: I try not to forget that there were 3,000 people killed by the --

WERTHEIMER: In the Trade Center. Do you associate that with the war in Iraq?

Mr. THARPE: Well, actually I think we should have went after someone else besides Iraq right up front. You know, I would've went to Iran first shot out of the box. But I remember, I was just a little kid, but I remember Pearl Harbor, and there weren't that many people killed in Pearl Harbor, and we fought four years. And I don't think anyone - even the President has said that this is not going to be a quick-fix thing.

WERTHEIMER: That last voice was Don Tharpe.

The Lincoln Library Book Club members pointed out that in their rural area, both parties field conservative candidates. No archconservatives or radical liberals here, one of them said. But the Democrats among them, like the Democrats in the NPR poll, are more enthusiastic about voting in this election. This will be the first time in years, one said, that my vote will really count.

Reporting on the voters of southern Indiana, Linda Wertheimer, NPR News.

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