STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Dozens of local elections will determine control of Congress this fall. We say dozens, not hundreds, since most of us live in districts that are not competitive. This morning we'll visit one of the places that is.
NPR White House correspondent David Greene is just back from a visit to the first district of Iowa - and David, why did you choose that place?
DAVID GREENE: Well, Steve, this is one of those really important races. This district has been held for a Republican for a long while, Jim Nussle. He's running for governor now, so it's an open seat - very competitive. And it really is a microcosm in some ways of the political landscape in the country. You've got a Republican who is in some ways trying to run from President Bush's record and not talk about the war in Iraq. You have a Democrat who's trying to make the race about economic issues, and also trying to turn the focus to Iraq but struggling a bit to find that right message on the war that's going to resonate.
INSKEEP: So what is this part of Iowa like?
GREENE: It's a district that stretches from the Mississippi River. You've got some really picturesque farmland right along the river - stretches then west. You have a college town, Cedar Falls, you've got a manufacturing city, Waterloo. And we followed the candidates a bit, and also, I really wanted to get a sense of what voters were thinking, so where else better to do that than to stop at a karaoke bar, right in a Quality Inn in downtown Waterloo?
(Soundbite of singing “Billy, Don't Be a Hero”)
Unidentified Woman #1 (Waterloo, Iowa): (Singing) Billy, don't be a hero. Come back and make me your wife.
Mr. JAY CONNER(ph) (Resident, Waterloo, Iowa): Waterloo and Cedar Falls, the metro area, has a longstanding reputation of being a karaoke town.
GREENE: That's Jay Conner. By night he runs the karaoke machine. By day, he finds affordable housing for the elderly.
He's been paying attention to his local congressional race, but he remains undecided.
Are your views on the war and President Bush going to factor? Are there other things?
Mr. CONNER: I'm going to stick a little closer to home. You know, I just think that we need to look at our own homeless, look at our own seniors, look at our economy. I don't want to hear anymore mudslinging about how Bush did this and how Bush did that. I want to hear somebody that's going to talk about programs that are going to effectively make some positive change - or at least an inroad to it.
GREENE: At the bar, Conner always sings to get the karaoke crowd pumped up.
Mr. CONNER: I'll probably sing some country, maybe, or some rock and roll. Probably Keith - some Keith Urban. Tonight When I Cry, probably.
(Soundbite of singing “Tonight When I Cry”)
Mr. CONNER: (Singing) Alone in this house again tonight…
GREENE: So Conner is a voter who doesn't want to hear about President Bush. That suits Republican candidate Mike Whalen just fine.
Mr. MIKE WHALEN (Republican Congressional Candidate, Iowa): Well, I'm Mike Whalen, the owner here.
GREENE: (Unintelligible) Mike Whalen.
Mr. WHALEN: Yes, that's me.
Unidentified Woman #2: We see your name plastered all over TV.
GREENE: Whalen owns The Machine Shed. It's a farm-themed restaurant and country store along Interstate 80. If you come here, you can enjoy a plate of their famous stuffed pork loin, and even go for a tractor ride out in the parking lot.
When it comes to President Bush's poll numbers, the Republican candidate sounds pretty realistic.
Has his level of popularity made it tougher for you to run as a Republican?
Mr. WHALEN: I'm sure it has. I mean, you know, obviously if he was at 80 percent it'd be easier.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WHALEN: You don't have to be a political genius to know that.
GREENE: Whalen rarely mentions President Bush if he doesn't have to, but at campaign events he does talk about the issue that's long been the president's political strength: fighting terrorism.
Mr. WHALEN: It's a battle that we can't lose. After five years of no major incidents of 9/11 is a record that speaks for itself, that ought to make every Iowan and American feel safer and prouder.
(Soundbite of applause)
GREENE: In Iowa, many voters say they vote for the person, not the party, and Whalen tries to make this race about the candidates. He graduated from Harvard Law School, but he casts himself as an average guy who started a restaurant from the ground up. This ad has been all over local radio.
(Soundbite of TV ad)
Mr. WHALEN: (In radio commercial) Hi. I'm Mike Whalen. I've poured a lot of coffee and cleared enough tables at The Machine Shed to know that folks just want some common sense in Washington.
Mr. BRUCE BRALEY (Democrat Congressional Candidate, Iowa): Any type of work that you can imagine in Iowa, I've probably done.
GREENE: Bruce Braley is the Democratic candidate in this race. He met with us over coffee at a diner. He also plays the folksy card.
Mr. BRALEY: I sold Christmas cards door-to-door; I baled hay; I shelled corn; I worked as a janitor; I drove a dump truck; I worked construction, building bridges and highways…
GREENE: These days, Braley is a litigator, but in his campaign, he's spending a lot of time on the senior center circuit. He told a roomful of seniors in Cedar Falls that if Republicans move again to make changes to social security, he'll stand up to them.
Mr. BRALEY: One of the things I know that you are interested in is making sure that people have protected, guaranteed benefits. And that's one of the things I'll be fighting for when I go to Congress.
GREENE: Democrat Braley has enjoyed a slight lead in the polls, but he's struggled to nail down his position on Iraq. This spring, he suggested he would support cutting funds for the war effort. His comment was like a gift to his opponent, who said his position would hurt U.S. troops. Braley was still defending himself last week on Iowa Public Television, saying many Republicans tried to cut war funding in the 1990s.
Mr. BRALEY: They voted to cut off funding to the war in Kosovo to send a message to a Democratic president, President Clinton. That's what you do in Congress when you hold the power of the purse, and the president is not following the wishes of the American people.
Unidentified Woman #3 (Waterloo, Iowa): (Singing) Life is a mystery.
GREENE: Back at the karaoke bar in Waterloo, Dan Lancaster(ph) was enjoying an 11-day leave from Iraq. He's part of a National Guard unit fighting in the volatile al-Anbar Province. Lancaster had a tattered American flag tattooed on his left arm. He says he feels like a target in Iraq, battling an enemy he can't see, and he blames President Bush.
As for the election, Lancaster says he's ready to vote absentee, but he hasn't heard a strong, clear message about the war from any candidate.
Mr. DAN LANCASTER (United States National Guard): If one of them would step up and hey, look, bring my troops home. Let's quit dancing with these fools that we can't dance with anyway. It'd be different if I had a dance partner, but I don't.
GREENE: And you haven't heard that yet, from a candidate?
Mr. LANCASTER: No. No, I have not.
GREENE: Before heading back to Iraq, Lancaster was hanging out with friends at the bar, singing one of his favorites.
Unidentified Man: Dano, shake the sand out of your toes, brother, and sing some James Brown for me. By the way, this (unintelligible).
Mr. LANCASTER: (Singing) Wow! I feel good! Like I knew that I would, now.
INSKEEP: We've been listening to NPR's David Greene, and just to be clear, we mean he's the one reporting and not the one singing there.
And David, is that last voter typical, in that he's unhappy with the way things are going, but Democrats are having trouble connecting with him?
GREENE: I think it is. The Democratic Party is having trouble finding the message that is really going to catch voters about the war, and they have another six weeks or so to really get that message and try to capitalize on some of this very fierce opposition to the war in Iraq.
INSKEEP: Is President Bush connecting with voters?
GREENE: It's hard to say at this point. Mr. Bush and the Republicans have spent a while now trying to turn the focus and change the headlines away from the war in Iraq and to terrorism. And we heard the Republican in this race doing just that. The question is whether they can sustain it and how long they'll be able to keep Iraq out of the headlines.
INSKEEP: So are you going to go back to Iowa, David?
GREENE: Absolutely. My producer, Evie Stone, and I spent some time there already. We're going to go back a couple times before Election Day.
INSKEEP: Okay, NPR White House correspondent David Greene. David, good to talk with you.
GREENE: You too, Steve.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: You can see a state-by-state analysis of this year's key House and Senate races just by going to our Web site, npr.org.
(Soundbite of music)
Sing along to NPR News.