CHIPPEWA FALLS, Wis. — A deer with gnarled antlers peers at customers from the wall of Garnet's Barbershop in this remote dairy town. Garnet Mathwig, who shot the deer, displays its head for the farmers and factory men who pay him $11 for a haircut.
To Mathwig and many others in the small towns of western Wisconsin, shotguns are prized possessions. So it was fitting that President Bush stopped at a hunting supply depot to showcase his support for gun rights on his recent bus trip across this side of the state. "I like to be in hunting and fishing country," Bush told his listeners.
Yet in a region where Bush's conservative stands on gun restrictions and other social issues should give him an edge over his Democratic challenger, Sen. John F. Kerry, the president's reelection bid remains bedeviled by two concerns that are causing him trouble elsewhere: jobs and Iraq.
"They keep talking about all these jobs they've created, but where are they?" Mathwig asked as he ran scissors and a comb up the back of a customer's head. "I don't see any in Chippewa Falls. What are they talking about? Flipping burgers at McDonald's?"
As for Iraq, he said, Bush "went in there with his eyes shut." He added, "We got ourselves into a tangled-up mess over there."
A continuing surge in new jobs nationally and the return of sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government this week appear to have done little to quell worries among many voters in the hardscrabble Chippewa Valley, an area beset this year by a wave of new layoffs.
Hundreds of jobs have vanished at Intek Plastics, American Girl, Rockwell Automation, Celestica and Mason Shoe, a mainstay employer since 1904. Now, Mason wingtips and hiking boots are relegated to a shelf at the Chippewa Falls museum.
Today, Kerry will try to tap into the area's unease as he embarks on a weekend bus tour through the Midwest that includes stops in the Chippewa Valley and other parts of this sparsely populated corner of Wisconsin.
Kerry's first Wisconsin stop will be just north of here at a family farm on the outskirts of Bloomer, population 3,347. Near the railroad tracks that cut through the town, the idle brick smokestack of a shuttered creamery towers over the nearby houses, a constant reminder of a time when jobs were more plentiful.
It's a town where Fourth of July flags have fluttered for days from nearly every front porch, and where yellow ribbons are tied around every streetlamp, a gesture of hope for the safe return of U.S. troops from Iraq.
It's also a town where the onslaught of gruesome news from Iraq has taken a toll on Bush's popularity.
At Kirkwood's, one of the two grocery stores in Bloomer, seventh-grade teacher Lori Trowbridge told of her horror at realizing some of her students had watched footage of one of the recent beheadings in Iraq on the Internet. She voted for Bush in 2000, but this time her choice will "totally depend on what he does with the war," an endeavor she first backed but now considers too costly.
"Bush is pro-life, I'm pro-life," said Trowbridge. "That's a plus for Bush. But will I vote for him on that now? If he gets his ducks in a row and gets our boys home."
Once an afterthought in presidential politics, the small towns scattered across Wisconsin's rolling green hills along the upper Mississippi River have become fiercely contested turf in a state both Kerry and Bush have made a top target for November.
Wisconsin's voters are notoriously independent, switching regularly between Republicans and Democrats in statewide elections. In modern presidential races, the state has leaned Democratic. Apart from Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, Democrats have carried Wisconsin in every presidential election since 1960. But Bush fell less than 6,000 votes short of winning Wisconsin in 2000.
For decades, presidential hopefuls have focused the bulk of their politicking in Wisconsin on the state's eastern side: a "golden triangle" of voters concentrated around Milwaukee, Green Bay and Madison.
But after the 2000 election, Democrats and Republicans alike concluded that a key reason Al Gore narrowly won Wisconsin was Bush's lackluster support in the small towns on the state's western side.
Gore drew enormous attention campaigning there on a riverboat trip with his running mate, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. Despite Bush's natural affinity with the region's socially conservative voters, he lost all eight Wisconsin counties along the Mississippi River, as well as five adjacent counties.
"If the Bush campaign can't pick up a couple of these counties, I don't think they can bank the state of Wisconsin," said Sara Rogers, political director of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO.
Indeed, state Republican Chairman Rick Graber said Bush's campaign bus tour in May through Prairie du Chien, La Crosse and other nearby towns reflected the area's strategic importance. He also said Bush had good reason to emphasize cultural issues that could resonate with voters in those communities.