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In a Bush Stronghold, Some Are Losing Heart

In Xenia, Ohio, the war and the economy are eroding people's faith in the president.

September 16, 2003|Faye Fiore | Times Staff Writer

XENIA, Ohio — When the price of stamps went up another penny awhile back, it was more than one man could stand. Waiting in line at the post office here, he spotted the nearest politician -- who happened to be the mayor of this friendly little town known as the City of Hospitality -- and took a swing at him.

"People don't always understand what's going on 5,000 miles away, but they know what's happening in their own hometown," said Mayor John Saraga, who ducked the punch that day. "And if things aren't good for them, they are going to hold somebody responsible, whether it's the mayor, the governor or the president."

Today, there is a lot more on the minds of the people of Xenia than the price of postage. The downturn in the economy has hammered Ohio, costing it 185,000 jobs over the last 2 1/2 years. Ninety-four of them are here at the Hooven Allison rope factory, set to shut down this month after 134 years in business.

The citizens will be asked to approve three local tax increases this fall to fend off cuts in school, city and hospital services.

And President Bush has attached an $87-billion price tag to an Iraq mission some here believe was well-intentioned but badly conceived.

"If things don't improve it could be a disaster for him," said Saraga, a Republican who supports Bush. "He's going to pay the price, unfortunately."

Concern about the war in Iraq -- and the Bush administration's rationale for the open-ended U.S. presence there -- has rippled across the country, nowhere more than through this city of 24,000 outside Dayton. For many here, that concern is inextricably linked with worries about the economy.

Bush won by less than 4% in Ohio, one of roughly a dozen "swing" states that will be hotly contested in next year's presidential election. Ohio is seen as crucial to his hopes for winning a second term -- no Republican has ever claimed the White House without it.

But there are signs that support for the president is eroding, with a recent statewide poll showing his approval rating down 11 points since shortly after the war began.

Even here in Republican-dominated Greene County -- where an obstetrician put a "Support President Bush and Our Troops" sign in his waiting room last spring and got requests for 100 like it -- there are growing misgivings about the costs of lives and dollars in Iraq.

"I won't vote for Bush again," said Penny Fox, 47, who opened Fox's Antiques and Such off Main Street in May but kept her part-time job at Kmart just in case. "He just came on too powerful, too gung-ho, too cocky."

Like many in Xenia, Fox backed the war at first. But now she is suspicious because no weapons of mass destruction have been found, and she is disturbed by the stream of body bags coming home -- more since Bush declared the major combat over.

Just about everyone here knows of a soldier overseas. The City of Xenia paid $300,000 in overtime to plug vacancies from employees called to reserve service. Eighteen photos of soldiers in Iraq hang in the lobby of the Xenia Daily Gazette.

Pictures of two of Fox's friends from Kmart are there. Their unhappiness is evident from their letters.

"At first they were excited and pumped up," Fox said. "Now they're depressed and want to come home. I'm upset for them. I don't think they need to be there any longer."

To be sure, plenty of Xenians remain solidly behind the war and the president. Bush may have squeaked to victory in the state of Ohio, but he carried Greene County handily.

Here, conservative values run deep. There are more churches -- 47 at last count -- than bars. Crime is low. High school football games fill the stands, and NASCAR fans will race anything on wheels, including school buses.

Edged by farmland, 200-year-old Xenia is anchored by a stone courthouse that has survived decades of tornadoes. The worst one, in 1974, tossed railroad cars through grocery store windows. Half the town was blown away, 10,000 people were left homeless and 33 were killed, many at the local root beer stand.

But Xenia always recovers and rebuilds. Lately, though, it has suffered from economic malaise, as some people worked six-day weeks to keep up.

"These Colors Don't Run," intones the patriotic window display at Xenia Archery, owned for 31 years by Stan Freelan, 65. His sign supports the mission in Iraq, but his more pressing concern is the duplex he and his wife can't afford. A loan application for the property lies facedown on the counter. The interest rates crept up and out of their reach. Business has been slow most of the summer. And if the city thinks it's getting his vote on a tax increase, it can think again.

"Xenia wastes more money than it needs," he declared, a line of crossbows and arrows behind him, photographs of slain deer dotting his glass countertop.

He has problems of his own. "Business took a drastic dive -- I mean drastic -- since the first of August. Nobody's doing good."

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