Whitefish Bay, Wis. -- When I first met Walt Dyer, Dick Leslie, Yerachmiel Ben Yitzchak and John Zahorik, they were at my favorite coffee shop in my native Wisconsin, debating the recall election of Governor Scott Walker. Dyer and Leslie are Republicans while Zahorik and Yerachmiel (whose English name is Richard Goldberg) are Democrats. Leslie and Goldberg have debated politics in a congenial manner ever since their 1949 graduation from Shorewood High School. For many years, this particular quartet has met every Wednesday at this combined coffee and bagel shop in this swing suburb of Milwaukee. Whitefish Bay voted for President Obama in 2008, but voted to retain Walker in June.
I ran into them again last Wednesday. They mirrored the tight race in battleground Wisconsin. Dyer, a 79-year-old retired hospital developer and Leslie, an 81-year-old retired banker, are solid for Republican candidate Mitt Romney. Goldberg, an 81-year-old retired labor lawyer and Zahorik, a 77-year-old retired professor of education at the University of Wisconsin _ Milwaukee, are locked in for Obama.
“What holds us together is that Walt listens to us without losing it,” Zahorik said.
“WHAT DID YOU SAY!!!” Dyer jokingly shouted.
“What I meant is that is we can talk as if there is another side,” Zahorik added.
“Is there another side?” Dyer playfully countered.
If only American politicians could behave like these gentlemen, the country might find enough comity to avoid the putrid two-party divide. Not once did Dyer and Leslie intimate, as many top Republicans have, that Obama is anything less than a full-blooded American. “I actually like Obama. . .” started Leslie. Dyer broke in, “We all like Obama. I’m upset about the polarization on both sides. But we don’t agree with his policies, especially his taxes. We just can’t have four more years like the last four. How big does the debt have to get before we face it?”
For their part, Zahorik and Goldberg acknowledged the strengths of Romney’s campaign without dripping sarcasm about the voters who support him.” Zahorik said, “I think Romney has run a wonderful campaign in making the debt a major issue. I would have thought his ‘47 percent’ statement would have sunk him, but it didn’t. That should have ended it. How they made taxes as the main issue is mind-boggling. I have to give him credit.”
While Dyer and Leslie were confident that Romney would win, Zahorik and Goldberg were mixed. “I just believe that at some point, the rhetoric of ‘cut taxes, cut taxes’ has to fail at some point,” Goldberg said. “People have to realize that at some point, important services have to be funded by the federal government.”
Zahorik sighed and said, “I hope you’re right. But I’m not so sure.”
Two blocks away, election results of a gastronomical kind were already in. As early voting in the city of Milwaukee hit record numbers, hundreds of donkey- and elephant-shaped cookies decorated with Obama’s and Romney’s name flew out of Regina’s Bay Bakery. In past elections years, the sales of Democratic or Republican cookies were about even. But from behind the counter, Marlene Haase, 77, said, “We’ve sold several hundred cookies the last three weeks. Romney’s cookies are outselling Obama 2-to-1. I don’t know why. It just seems the wealthier people are buying bunches of them for their offices.”
Wisconsin is such a battleground that Obama spoke in Green Bay on Friday, Romney came to the Milwaukee suburb of West Allis on Friday, Obama came to Milwaukee on Saturday and began the final full day of campaign in Madison. There were even dueling football endorsements from the state’s beloved Green Bay Packers, with star defensive back Charles Woodson warming up the Green Bay crowd for Obama and Hall of Fame quarterback Bart Starr drawing roars from Romney supporters, reading quotes from legendary coach Vince Lombardi about excellence and leadership.
The biggest crowds of those rallies were Obama’s Milwaukee event at the downtown convention center, attended by 20,000 people, and the Madison rally, with 18,000 people lining a street down from the state capitol. But the several thousand people at Romney’s appearance at a pavilion in Wisconsin’s State Fair Park in the suburb of West Allis, displayed no less intensity.
“We are at the most pivotal point in our history,” said Heather Johnson, 53. She was with her husband Todd and her three children, all adopted from Russia. “I’ve seen socialism in Russia and everything is corrupt. We’ve rented apartments in the so-called middle class section, stepping over urine and seeing people sleep on floors. That’s where we’re headed the way we’re going.”
Wearing both a shirt and leather jacket resembling the American flag was Gary Glatz, a 62-year-old small businessman. Among his companies has been one to help older workers train on computers. “I’m not seeing the jobs this country needs,” Glatz said. “I’ve been at big companies like IBM, I walked high steel on the 60th story of the Sears tower in the summer when I was young. I’ve seen business from every angle and we need someone like Romney to get us going again.”
Richard Anderson, 68, an evangelical minister from Plymouth says his son, who has spent nearly 20 years in the military has told him, “There is not a clear sense of leadership at the helm. My son says he wants to know why he’s being shipped to wherever. That knowledge is lacking.”
Obama won Wisconsin by 14 percentage points in 2008. But with Wisconsin Republican congressman Paul Ryan running for vice president, Real Clear Politics average of the most recent state polls has Obama up by a mere four percentage points. Romney was as close as two points in mid-October.
On Saturday, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who lost to Walker in the recall announced to a loud cheer that early voting broke 2008’s record. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that 36,578 ballots were returned, compared to 31,200 four years ago. Statewide, the Obama campaign claims of the 361,736 early ballots being cast, nearly three-fourths were cast in counties won by Obama in 2008.
Barrett roared that the total was achieved even though Republicans in the state curtailed the period from three weeks to 10 days. “They tried to stop us and they failed!” Barrett shouted.
After the Milwaukee event, Tim Storm and Kathleen Braatz Storm of Beloit said they believed the Romney campaign hurt its appeal in these final days in the Midwest by wrongly stating in an ad that Chrysler was sending American jobs to China. Despite the fact that Tim was a highly successful entrepreneur as the founder and former CEO of the Internet bargain shopping site FatWallet, and despite the fact that Kathleen trumpeted small business as the former executive director of the Downtown Beloit Association, they both said that Romney’s pro-business plans were far too short-sighted.
“There’s no question Romney’s policies and low taxes would be better for me personally,” Tim Storm said. “But do you vote personally or for the country? There are so many things that need to be funded. We’re voting for the country.”
Kathleen added, “When I look at downtowns, and the mom and pop businesses, preserving them and the general vitality of downtown activity takes many public-private partnerships. Constant public cuts makes the job really hard.”
Saying they were feeling the threat of cuts were Green Bay area public schoolteachers Jamie and Allison Averbeck. They are one of the families I’ve been in touch with along Morris Avenue, a political swing street a couple blocks from Lambeau Field. The front of their house has a life-sized “farmer” statue in a Green Bay Packer football jersey with a banner saying, “Obama then! Obama now!”
“I’m worried,” said Allison, 36. “A lot of the wind was taken out of our sails when Walker won again. I know I didn’t make as many phone calls for Obama as I did for the recall My mother (a retired teacher) is making lots of calls for Obama but says she feels bad because she knows people are tired of the calls.”
Up the street, the Nikolai family, whom I first met in 2007, were split. Ron, 42, a salesman for a trucking parts supplier, is voting for Romney, while wife Kelly, 43, a dairy company customer service representative, is voting for Obama. Holding a pregame tailgate party in the driveway, Ron said, “I think Obama will get walked on. People voted for his change but it didn’t happen. I actually think he’ll win Wisconsin pretty good. I really didn’t like the vice presidential debate where (Vice President Joe) Biden was so smug. A lot of people didn’t like that.”
Kelly disagreed, saying Obama “needs more time. He has to have more than four years after inheriting such a mess.”
In Wisconsin, the acrimony left over from the Walker recall attempt, persistent intimations that Obama is not a real American, plus turnout for a hotly contested US Senate race between former Republican Governor Tommy Thompson and Democrat US Representative Tammy Baldwin are wild cards. On the freeway from Milwaukee to Green Bay a huge billboard looms over a cornfield, saying, “We the people built this country, don’t let Obama destroy it.”
Wisconsin did not buy such coarse appeals in 2008. But Obama’s support arguably has plummeted here more than anywhere else in the nation, close to when John Kerry won the state in 2004 by only 0.4 percentage points. While early urban voting strongly favored Obama, there is no telling how strongly the suburbs and farm country will speak on Election Day. To borrow from the bakery’s Obama vs. Romney contest, it is impossible to predict which cookie will crumble.