War Fades as Issue for Altoona, Pa.'s GOP Voters

Altoona, Pa. — a state where the next Democratic presidential contest will take place — is solidly Republican. GOP voters there say the Iraq war has faded as an issue for them, but their party ties have not.

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SUSAN STAMBERG, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Susan Stamberg. A new poll shows that public awareness of the numbers of deaths in Iraq dropped by almost half from the summer of 2007. The survey, taken this month by the Pew Research Center, also found that the war has not been the dominant story in the news media since October. We asked NPR's Linda Wertheimer to go to Pennsylvania, where the next political primary takes place, to ask whether the war is still a voting issue.

LINDA WERTHEIMER: Altoona, Pennsylvania, is in the western part of the state in the Allegheny Mountains. The town's fortunes rose and fell with the Pennsylvania Railroad. Now, Altoona is part of the rust belt, half the size it was.

But there are still family-owned businesses downtown, like Tom and Joe's. It's a diner.

Unidentified Man: Table nine, egg-white cheese omelet, and a number two over-easy.

WERTHEIMER: The Republican Party dominates Altoona and Blair County. Registration is about two to one here. In Tom and Joe's, we met a number of Republicans who are unhappy about the war.

Ms. JUDY FISHER(ph) (Republican Voter, Altoona, Pennsylvania): I am not in favor of it.

WERTHEIMER: Judy Fisher is retired from the grocery business.

Ms. FISHER: I don't think it's helping the country any, and it's killing a lot of our young men and women.

WERTHEIMER: Judy Fisher will vote Republican, for John McCain, despite his views about the war, and this is what we found talking to other Republicans here. The war has faded as an issue for them, but party ties have not.

We also found Democrats at that diner. Marie and Ernie Oswald(ph) are retired. They believe the war is destroying the economy. Hillary Clinton is ahead in Pennsylvania, and the Oswalds are voting for her.

Ms. MARIE OSWALD (Democratic Voter, Altoona, Pennsylvania): I think she does have some experience, living in the White House, and honestly I think Bill will be behind her in a lot of her decisions, and he ran the country okay as far as I'm concerned.

Mr. ERNIE OSWALD (Democratic Voter, Altoona, Pennsylvania): She has a good breakfast partner, talk things over.

WERTHEIMER: We talked to workers at another family-owned business in Tipton, near Altoona. DelGrosso's Foods is the largest family-owned maker of pasta sauce in the country.

(Soundbite of machinery)

WERTHEIMER: Every day, 10,000 cases of pasta sauce are cooked in huge, two-story vats, poured into jars and sent rattling down a mechanized line, packed and stacked to be shipped all over the country.

Paul Picar(ph) operates the machine that fills those jars. He's a Republican; he'll vote for McCain, but he is also disappointed in the war. Iraq was a mistake, he says.

Mr. PAUL PICAR (Republican Voter, Tipton, Pennsylvania): I didn't have a problem with Bush going into Afghanistan after 9/11, but when he went into Iraq, I think it was just - you know, they pushed the idea of going in there, and I think it was just a total mistake. I think that's been proven. Even the people that voted to go in are against it now.

WERTHEIMER: Picar says he's not okay with McCain's plan to be in Iraq for years but hopes he'll come up with something better if he's elected.

Bill Sigle(ph) is a 21-year veteran at DelGrosso, a supervisor. He's a Democrat; he'll vote for Clinton. For him, the economy is a bigger concern than the Iraq War.

Mr. BILL SIGLE (Democratic Voter, Tipton, Pennsylvania): Gas prices, the oil, there's so many people losing their homes. I think all in all, it's bad.

WERTHEIMER: That same evening, we met with a group of church members at Faith Baptist Church in Altoona. More than a dozen people showed up to talk, another half-dozen just to listen. They were social conservatives, and their distress about the war was that the U.S. is not doing enough to win it. Gordon Hampton(ph) drives a truck.

Mr. GORDON HAMPTON (Social Conservative, Altoona, Pennsylvania): Did I think we should be over there? No, but we are. Now let's get the job done. If it takes another nine years, we need to do it.

(Soundbite of applause)

WERTHEIMER: For this group also, other issues are influencing their votes. Dave Kalarsic(ph) works for an excavating company. His approval of the war was changed by the death of a young neighbor in Iraq, but he and others in this church hope to cast their votes based on gay marriage, immigration and abortion.

Mr. DAVE KALARSIC: (Social Conservative, Altoona, Pennsylvania): I was going to endorse Huckabee if he was - absolutely. Then what happened? Politics got him out of there, and money. I don't know, but the choices now that I have, I don't care for, and I feel like I'm voting for the lesser of evil is what I feel I'd be voting for.

WERTHEIMER: According to Pastor Gary Dull, a substantial number of social conservatives are threatening not to vote at all. They don't like any of the remaining candidates. But others, like the church librarian, Donna Shally(ph), will vote for McCain.

Ms. DONNA SHALLY (Republican Voter, Altoona, Pennsylvania): I don't think you can sit home. I think you have to go and vote for someone, and then you pray like mad.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: In a white frame house on top of one of Altoona's precipitous hills, we met Sean and Mandy Greizer(ph) and their two small children. We probably arrived a little too close to dinnertime.

Ms. MANDY GREIZER (Resident, Altoona, Pennsylvania): I want to see how he's going to be with the honey, to see if he's even …

(Soundbite of baby crying)

Ms. GREIZER: Oh no.

Mr. SEAN GREIZER (Resident, Altoona, Pennsylvania): He's not taking the people food.

WERTHEIMER: Mandy was sent to the war with the National Guard when her first son was 2. She was trained to drive and repair trucks. She spent a year in Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad.

Ms. GREIZER: While I was gone, Ramadi was the hot spot. I believe it was probably in the news every day, incoming missiles. There were always snipers. There was always someone getting shot on our FOB. There were many a night where we didn't sleep, and we ran and ran and ran those trucks.

WERTHEIMER: While the families stepped up, as Mandy says, to help Sean with the little boy, Sean says he was obsessed with the possibility that Mandy would be hurt or killed.

Mr. GREIZER: I was getting on the casualty Web site nine, 10, 11 times a day, and I became almost consumed with the idea of trying to get her home. So I would call congressmen, I would call people. I'd call the paper.

WERTHEIMER: Now Mandy is home for good. She has a job, they've had a second baby, bought new furniture. Even for them, the war is not necessarily the issue they'll vote on.

Mr. GREIZER: There's so many other things going on in the world that it seems like the war now itself has taken the back stage to it all, and obviously now, I kind of look at it differently and definitely, we are the lucky ones in terms of a family that our loved one came back mentally, physically sound and to me, that - I'm forever grateful for that.

WERTHEIMER: Despite his upset about the Iraq War, Sean Greizer plans to vote for John McCain. Mandy Greizer still supports the war, would even like to go back. She is leaning toward Hillary Clinton. They've moved on. Linda Wertheimer, NPR News, Altoona, Pennsylvania.

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