President Obama campaigns in Iowa, where voters interviewed seemed unusually… (Charlie Neibergall, Associated…)
INDIANOLA, Iowa — Friday was senior night at Indianola High School, the Indians set to play the Lincoln Railsplitters in the last home game of the season. First, though, came a dose of tradition, celebratory and sweet.
Every football player, cheerleader, cross-country runner and band member poised to graduate in spring marched down the track, their names and plans called out over the public address system as the shivering crowd cheered.
Bob Kling did the honors for the marching band's seniors: Samantha Barth, Central College, pre-med … Hannah Hayden, Concordia University, Christian education … Travis Huss, undecided.
It's hard to be a pessimist when faced with such a parade of possibility. As election day nears, Kling says he is, more or less, hopeful about the future. He worries — about education cuts, stagnant wages, the possibility of war — but on the whole, the retired high school art teacher said, "I feel pretty good about things."
The economic recovery has been only middlingly successful. The national conversation is stuck on jobs and the lack thereof. Yet here in Warren County, a kind of Iowa in miniature south of the state capital, interviews with voters reveal a hint of optimism — resilience, even — in the waning weeks of the presidential campaign.
Maybe it's the default mind-set in Iowa, where hard work is a religion and debt a cardinal sin. Perhaps it's because the recession did less damage here than elsewhere.
Either way, voters in Indianola, the Warren County seat, sounded more upbeat recently than their brethren in most other states. What is less clear is which candidate will benefit from the cautious cheer apparent in this small but strategic state. President Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are in a dead heat here, and both campaigned in the state Wednesday.
Indianola, population upward of 15,000, is surrounded by rolling hills and broad fields of corn and soy, gone brown with autumn's chill. A giant grain silo looms over the east side of town, just behind the Hy-Vee supermarket, not far from Mark and Mary Clark's house.
Mark Clark is past president of the Indianola Athletic Booster Club. While the Indians and Rails prepared to take the field and Mary took tickets at the gate, the 54-year-old grilled cases of cheddar brats and dozens of turkey legs for sale at the concession stand.
Four years ago Clark lost his job at a local concrete manufacturing company. Now he works as a one-on-one aide to an elementary school child with behavioral problems. And as a crossing guard. And as second vice president of the National Balloon Classic, a volunteer post he fills in an effort to give back to the community.
Clark's income has dropped by three-quarters. He worries about having enough money to retire on and visit his grown children, who live in eastern Iowa, Missouri and Southern California. He fears that his beloved granddaughter, Addyson, age 1, will be saddled with the stubborn debt of a careless government.
But he also believes in change. And fortitude. In Indianola, the town that has embraced his family for the last 16 years. Clark looked out across the brightly lit stadium, at the bundled-up fans and the almost bare trees. And he smiled.
"This is so nice," Clark said, as the marching band struck up the national anthem. "This is home."
Of course it helps that Iowa has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation, tied for fourth place with Oklahoma at 5.2%. Nationally, 7.8% of the workforce is looking for a job.
Although the drought hit Indianola hard, the recession had a softer touch here. And the last two years or so have seen a burst of construction, particularly to the north along U.S. 65/69, the main drag that bisects town.
The vista heading toward Des Moines is particularly telling: a tall, sky-blue water tower, "Indianola" emblazoned across the tank's width. A neat red barn in a stand of trees losing leaves with the approach of winter. And the new YMCA, a crane looming over unfinished walls, with opening day nine months or so in the future.
Mayor Kenan Bresnan is the first to cheer Indianola's recent additions — the Y, the two health clinics, the farm equipment store, the assisted-living center, the middle school sports complex, St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church.
But Bresnan is also wary. After all, many of those buildings were constructed using public or donated money. The percentage of children receiving free or reduced-price lunches here, he said, has more than doubled in the last eight years. His own retirement plan, he joked, is to hang up his briefcase at 65 and die at 66.
"There's a great spirit of optimism, but we're not building more houses," said Bresnan, 65 and nowhere near retirement.
The most striking addition to the Indianola skyline is the Kent Campus Center at Simpson College. The liberal arts school was founded in 1860 by members of the Iowa United Methodist Church. Today it is one of the town's biggest employers.