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Checking Out the (Political) Colors in Midwest Swing States

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Illinois is expected to back its U.S. Senator, Barack Obama, in the fall presidential election. But virtually every state around Illinois could go red or blue. That's turned the Midwest into an epicenter of the contentious battle between Obama and his Republican opponent, Arizona Senator John McCain.  So Chicago Public Radio has sent reporters Robert Wildeboer and Ben Calhoun on a Midwest Color Tour of sorts. But they're not checking out the autumn leaves. This week and next, they'll be bringing us stories from bellweathers, battlegrounds, and hotspots—listening to how our neighbors are making their decisions—decisions that could swing this historic election.

Today, Robert Wildeboer has a report from the team's first stop, Racine Wisconsin.

Racine Fish Boil Slideshow

The head of the Wisconsin Republican party is named Reinz Priebus. That's right, Reinz Priebus.

PRIEBUS: That's what happens when you have a greek and a german for a parent. You get this kind of mish mash.

Priebus says, if you want to know how Wisconsin is going to vote, you can just take the temperature of one area.

PRIEBUS: Racine county is a microcosm of the entire state of Wisconsin. Priebus says economically, socially, the county represents the state and whoever carry's the area almost always wins statewide.

So to figure out how the state might vote we went to downtown Racine to find out what people there are saying. Racine's right on Lake Michigan, about 70 miles north of Navy Pier in Chicago. Locals looking for a burger downtown go to the iconic Kewpee's where Joshua Khristapeit is carrying on a family tradition working as a grillman slash manager.

KHRISTAPEIT: In 1926 my grandpa was a manager the day it opened and five or six years later the original owner Walter Block died and it's been in my family ever since that day.

For Khristapeit the big issue in this presidential election is healthcare. A couple years ago the twenty-five year old was diagnosed with a stomach disease that puts him at a high risk for getting cancer so health insurance companies quote him really high rates.

KHRISTAPEIT: And the only way to get on Wisconsin's high risk insurance is if you've been denied by companies before, but I keep not getting denied. They keep giving me rate coverages of 6 hundred dollars a month, 5 hundred dollars a month.

Being a small business, Kewpee's doesn't offer a health plan but Khristapeit thought the downtown businesses could band together.

KHRISTAPEIT: All these little shops got eight, nine workers, you know they all can't get a group-care plan by themselves so I was like, dude, you know, well how about we try to get all the downtown businesses on to a plan, that way I could not be going into debt for hospital bills.

But Khristapeit was told that there's a Wisconsin law that prohibits businesses from joining together on a health plan. He says he's leaning Obama's way but he'd vote for any candidate proposing universal healthcare. Neither of them has so he's not sure who he'll vote for.

Marla Crotteau knows exactly who she'll vote for. She and a friend fold their hands and pray over some burgers that Khristapeit has just served up. Crotteau says she usually votes republican and she's supporting McCain.

CROTTEAU: Any leader that's still going to uphold godly values, you know which, abortion, gay rights, all that stuff. That's the leader I want.

Over at the counter 87-year-old Dorothy Cormack and her husband are saddled precariously on a couple bar stools, their matching canes at their sides. She's favors McCain though she's not a big fan of Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

CORMACK: If something would happen to him, I don't think we should have a lady president because I really believe that God put man the head of the house, and he should be the head of the country too.

ADAM CORMACK: Tell him about the interesting thing that happened to me yesterday.

That's Adam, Dorothy's husband of almost 60 years. She pats him and laughs as she tells the story of how his pants fell down at the grocery store. He explains the problem is the shape of his body.

ADAM CORMACK: I'm bulged out like a pear see? And it's hard to get a belt to dig into that see?

Dorothy says she's not too excited about McCain or Obama though she admits her reasons are skin deep.

CORMACK: I go by looks a lot being a lady and I don't I think any of them look like they should be a president… I think of a man that looks healthy and intelligent and kind of ordinary but nice looking.

At a table by the window, Juanita Cruz voices a more common concern I hear here. She says in Racine, there's really just one issue.

CRUZ: Unemployment.

Unemployment has been between 9 and 10 percent every month this year. That compares to the national average which is around 6. Cruz says lots of companies have been leaving.

CRUZ: Acme diecasting, they just up and left. Amitech left, Jacobsen. My aunt worked 30 years at Jacobsen, my other aunt had over 30 years at Amitech. You know all those years they put in and then they just up and leave.

Cruz doesn't think McCain or Obama can do anything to turn around the economy in Southeast Wisconsin. It's a belief I hear on the other side of Racine county at North Cape Lutheran Church's 25th annual fish boil.

Behind the tidy white country church there are six barrels of water boiling over a rectangular fire pit that's 3 feet wide and 15 feet long. One guy with a nametag that says chairman shouts orders to other guys who lower strainers filled with frozen cod or potatoes or carrots into the water. 

SOUND OF TAPE: Need fish dropped in number five!!!!

Jeff Egresi and his girlfriend look on while the church worship band plays to a nearly empty tent in another part of the parking lot. 

EGRESI: Racine used to have a good industry where people worked, got a job, worked 20 30 years and retired from there and those places are all gone right now. It's just not there anymore.

Over by the church's main door, but still well within earshot of the band, Jim White's daughter is trying to get a quarter to buy some Apple Cider.

SOT:  please…

He relents and gives up the quarter which is more than the local banks have been doing lately. White sells cars at a dealership and he was recently selling a Dodge Ram ¾ ton diesel pick-up to a guy who owns several houses and has never missed a payment. The bank would have made 16 percent interest on the loan and they still declined.

WHITE: It's happening within the last two weeks. It's gotten, the banks have gotten that tight with their money, they won't give it to people even with good credit.

White says he thinks McCain is going to be the one to fix the problem. He says the key to solving the current financial crisis is that republicans and democrats are going to have to work together. And he mentions something that's become a popular talking point here, that McCain worked with Senator Russ Feingold, a liberal democrat from Wisconsin to pass campaign funding reform.

White says that's proof McCain can work across the aisle.

In Wisconsin, I'm Robert Wildeboer, Chicago Public Radio.

Music Button: Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile, “Fence Post in the Front Yard”, from the CD Edgar Meyer & Chris Thile, (Nonesuch records)

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