Many Voters In Northern Va. Remain Undecided
SCOTT SIMON, Host:
As you may have heard, polls show the state - excuse me, Commonwealth of Virginia is expected to be a close contest this year. Virginia hasn't voted for a Democrat for president since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. The last two governors and senator elected have been Democrats. Less than 20 years ago, Virginians elected Democrat Doug Wilder, the nation's first African-American governor. A lot of stories in Virginia politics may begin on a farm or in some town square.
(SOUNDBITE OF PASSING METRO TRAIN)
SIMON: But these days a lot of Virginians are more familiar with the whoosh and ring tones of a metro train...
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Unidentified Announcer: Step back, the door is closing.
SIMON: ...than a snorting horse. Northern Virginia, especially the counties around Washington, D.C., have exploded in population with immigrants from Central America and Asia, and hi-tech migrants from the North and West. Many are latte-sipping condo dwellers, not country people. More new media than old Confederacy. So, we rode the rails and rubber-tired subway cars to talk to voters in that region of two and a half million people that now amounts to a third of Virginia's population. Robin Jackson(ph) sat with her head against the window, wearing the brown uniform of a famous delivery service. She says that business has been good, but she has three children. The most important issue for her is...
ROBIN JACKSON: The economy. The economy most of all.
SIMON: You feel that in your life right now?
JACKSON: Yes, very much so. Especially prices in food, not just gas. Food, toothpaste, everything we use. We is not getting as much as we used to. When you open up a can, it's like you have more water than you have actual vegetable. You haven't noticed that?
SIMON: What could someone running for president say that might reach you, do you think, to impress you?
JACKSON: Maybe some type of sound suggestion on how we could turn the economy around, how it's not going to cost anybody so much out of pocket than what we are already paying to make it better. You know, I don't know, but I know something has to be done.
SIMON: Steven Magnus(ph), a theology major at Catholic University, worries about what he doesn't want, though.
STEVEN MAGNUS: What's on my mind, actually, is a small government. I'm actually a McCain supporter, and that's why I feel like Obama supports the government stepping in in too many situations.
SIMON: Now, to point out the obvious, is that easier for a student to say than for someone who is working?
MAGNUS: I think I have kind of suffered the burdens of the economy just as much as anybody. I mean, I took $50,000 in loans for school this year. I don't get any scholarships, and my parents don't pay anything. So, I mean, the burden is all on me. And so these things are definitely affecting my future as well.
SIMON: A man near the door in a smart pin-striped suit named Aston Kong(ph) looked like he was - and in fact was - on his way to a job interview. But he hasn't been impressed with the case made by any candidate so far.
ASTON KONG: I don't know. I feel like the two-party system is just kind of corrupt and doesn't really represent most people in this country, the wider range of views that we probably have.
SIMON: It's an historical ethic?
KONG: Yeah, it is. I mean, I don't understand the history behind it. It's just - in the same way that a lot of people blame Bush for the state of affairs, I just feel like it's bigger than that. It's a symptomatic problem that we have in this country.
SIMON: Even when voters put certain words on their feelings in this election season, they don't always finish the sentence the way pundits may assume they would. Red Yancy(ph) is an Army lieutenant colonel who was standing on a blue-orange line platform.
RED YANCY: Unfortunately, America is having real trouble because we're in this state of moral relativism. We're having real trouble defining who we're fighting in this war.
SIMON: Now, a lot of people would hear what you're saying, and they would think that has to lead to Senator McCain?
YANCY: No, not all. I don't have a penchant for either one.
SIMON: Sarah Palin's name comes up a lot and incites a range of reactions. Trisha May(ph), who's single, lives in a studio apartment with a house plant, and works in software, has found her head turned.
TRISHA MAY: I have Democratic tendencies, but I'm really impressed with Palin right now. She seems to be calm, and collected, and more objective.
SIMON: Colonel Yancy, who doesn't like any presidential candidate very much, says that the governor of Alaska...
YANCY: I think she's the best thing around. I think she's better than all the rest of them. I wish she was running for president.
SIMON: But Ella Segor(ph) from Emporia, Virginia, who runs an office leasing agency, believes that Governor Palin's pregnant daughter demonstrates a flaw in the governor's management skills.
ELLA SEGOR: She wasn't paying attention, because a 17-year-old that has that much leniency, she wasn't paying attention.
SIMON: But Robin Jackson, the delivery service driver, finds that argument offensive to her.
JACKSON: That's just like saying, OK, can I get out here and deliver my truck and still come home and take care of my family? Of course I can. Why shouldn't she be able to do the same thing?
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SIMON: Every morning there's a different music show for children at Jammin' Java in Vienna, Virginia, which is well beyond the beltway that encircles Washington. Young mothers balance children in their laps as they sip coffee, and their youngsters squirm as a folk singer entertains. Mary Rust(ph), who says she is usually a Republican, sits on the floor with her 7-month-old son Hayden(ph).
MARY RUST: I have always been for McCain. I'm a little cautious now, but I'm going to wait and see. You know, I'm going to wait until I know everything on both ends before I make a decision.
SIMON: A woman named Jennifer(ph) describes herself as a former Republican who doesn't like the choice of Governor Palin.
JENNIFER: I just think she's very inexperienced and...
SIMON: Is she, in your mind, substantially less experienced than Senator Obama?
JENNIFER: I don't know how to say this without sounding like an elitist. I think she's substantially less intelligent. I trust him more with his life experience to make an intelligent, measured decision.
SIMON: Jennifer says her own life experience altered her political direction when she had an autistic child. She blames a Republican governor of Virginia and other politicians for cutting spending on children with special needs.
JENNIFER: Fairfax County, which is one of the wealthiest counties in the country, has no autism resource (unintelligible) anymore. I see the Democrats as the education party, I really do. And that's been having three kids, especially with a special needs child. I have to vote for that party. I hope maybe that having her there, if they win, maybe will change some of the Republican policies towards special needs children, but I don't have great hopes of it.
SIMON: Late afternoons, three friends, all retired from federal jobs, meet for coffee and conversation. A man named Rich(ph) also describes himself as a former Republican who will probably vote for Barack Obama. He says he isn't impressed by the experience of any of the presidential and vice presidential candidates, even Joe Biden who's head of the Foreign Relations Committee.
RICH: He's famous for foreign policy. But economics and other things, I don't know. Obama does seem to be a junior and perhaps not fully tested in crisis. Could he stand up to the Iranian mullahs, people like this? Will he stand up and fight, I wonder? McCain, you can call him a maverick, but he appoints people who are not qualified. So, is he idealistic? Is he even present?
SIMON: If you're counting, our informal survey probably brought us into contact with a couple more Obama than McCain voters in Northern Virginia. Statewide polls show a virtual tie. But even more people said they were undecided or open to changing their minds. We met a couple of sisters, Pam Orchin(ph) and Pat Kaufman(ph), both non-practicing lawyers, as they made a late afternoon run at an upscale shopping area in Arlington.
PAM ORCHIN: We have always been, sort of, on the opposite side of the political spectrum in that way.
PAT KAUFMAN: And we are at this time.
ORCHIN: We are this time. We are this time, too.
SIMON: You are at this time, too. So you both cancel each other out.
ORCHIN: We're canceling each other's votes out as we have done for the last 25 years or so.
SIMON: So, we have a...
KAUFMAN: I never thought of it that way.
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KAUFMAN: We don't make a difference. I mean, we'll certainly be watching the debates, I think, and with great interest, and I'm sure like everyone. The vice presidential debate is going to be pretty fascinating.
SIMON: Richard Gray(ph) of Arlington says he's under no illusions that any candidate can deliver on what they say.
RICHARD GRAY: I think right now, the way Washington is, I'm not sure that any one of them would get anything through. I mean, look at what happened with the Congress last time. The Democrats won it, and we had all these big promises. They're in there, and all they're doing is fighting. And now nobody's getting through.
SIMON: I have to point something out. We are standing, what, half a mile from Washington? We just happen to be in another state. But you - I mean, you talk about Washington like it's...
GRAY: Far away. Yeah.
GRAY: And I live across the river from Washington.
SIMON: Voters in Northern Virginia, two subway stops from the dreaded place where government dwells, talking just a little over six weeks before Election Day.