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Deaths in Iraq War Take Toll on Voters

November 13, 2003

BEAVER FALLS, Pa. (AP) _ John Webb wears an 82nd Airborne Division cap atop his shock of gray hair and a grimace across his craggy face _ every pleat and pucker a memory from World War II.

He’s gnawing a cigar, spitting bits of tobacco with each raw, angry word.

``It was a mistake to get into Iraq. It’s a mistake not to get out. Got that? Mistake! Mistake! Mistake!″ the Republican says, jabbing the air with his smoking spear. ``You know what I’d like to tell the president? Get out! Get going! Get gone! Now.″

Ranting outside American Legion Post 261, some 250 miles from the polls and politics of Washington, Webb stands testament to a sentiment that could threaten President Bush’s re-election hopes. Death in Iraq is taking its toll politically as local media coverage of each body bag and burial drives home the costs of war.

More than 390 soldiers from 46 states, the District of Columbia and two U.S. territories have died in Iraq since the war began March 20. All 16 of the most critical political states _ those Bush won or lost by 5 percentage points or less _ have suffered fatalities. Five battleground states _ Michigan, Ohio, Florida, Missouri and Pennsylvania _ have lost 10 or more soldiers.

This steady drizzle of death is creeping into the American consciousness, causing even independent and Republican-leaning voters like Webb to question Bush’s policies.

``I liked Bush. He comes off as a decent fellow, a good Christian. The whole works,″ says Webb, 77, who parachuted into France as part of the D-Day invasion.

``But as commander in chief? No way. Not now.″


Beaver County is the heart of Pennsylvania’s 4th Congressional District, which voted 52-46 percent for Bush in 2000 even though the state went for Democrat Al Gore. Rep. Melissa Hart, a Republican lawyer from Pittsburgh’s suburbs, easily carried the western Pennsylvania district in 2002.

Then came war, and its bloody aftermath. Two Beaver County soldiers have died in the Bush administration’s struggle to bring peace to Iraq.

Army Pvt. Timothy R. Brown Jr. of Conway, Pa., was killed in August when his armored personnel vehicle hit a roadside bomb near Tikrit. Army Sgt. Ernest Bucklew of Darlington Township, Pa., was killed this month when an Army helicopter was shot down near Baghdad.

It is almost too much to bear, even for a county that boasts about having the highest percentage of living World War II veterans in the nation.

``I hate war,″ says Minnie Medaglia, an 89-year-old Republican whose five brothers served in two wars _ World War II and Korea. ``They both made more sense than this one in Iraq,″ she says.


The White House’s attempts to soften the war’s lethal blows on a national level _ footage of flag-draped coffins arriving in the United States is forbidden, for example _ has not prevented local reporting of the American dead.

``They say there’s a reason for everything, but I just can’t find a reason for this,″ Bucklew’s uncle, Jack Smith, told the Pennsylvania media. ``This country shouldn’t be starting wars, we should be defending ourselves and others. I think all these boys should be sent home.″

Marcus Slavenas of Illinois, whose brother, Brian, was killed with Bucklew, called the loss of life in Iraq ``a sickening waste.″

In Mira Mesa, Calif., the father of slain Army Staff Sgt. Paul A. Velazquez said his son’s death changed his mind about the war. ``They are hunting us down one at a time,″ John D. Velazquez said. ``We should get the heck out of there.″

In Lansing, Mich., pollster Ed Sarpolus pulls a Detroit newspaper from his desk and reads a headline: ``Port Huron man dies.″ He says the pace of death is not rapid enough yet to turn a majority of the public against Bush, but the breaking point may not be far away.

``The drumbeat of these killings is like Chinese water torture. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip,″ the pollster says.


A day-old paper sits in a puddle outside a two-story brick home. It has a front-page photograph of Donald Bucklew, his face contorted in agony and pitched toward the skies. A son had died in Iraq en route home for his mother’s funeral, leaving Bucklew twice broken.

``Burying a wife and a son,″ reads the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette headline.

Amanda Cumming, a 24-year-old housewife whose neighbor had left the paper outside, shakes her head at the thought of the headline. It’s enough to make her ill, maybe enough to turn her against Bush.

``I just don’t get how one minute we’re bombing them over there and the next minute we’re feeding them,″ says the independent voter outside her home. ``What about the starving kids here?″

That night, television station WTAE broadcasts a story about Sgt. Nicholas A. Tomko, a 24-year-old in the 307th Military Police Company out of New Kensington, Pa., who was shot to death Sunday in Iraq. His fiancee, Jessica Baillie, cries while their toddler plays at her feet.

``I’m gonna make sure than Ethan knows that his dad is a hero and that he did ... what he wanted to do and that he went over there to fight for his country,″ Baillie says. ``There is nothing negative you can say about that.″


Since the war began, Bush’s job approval rating has dropped about 20 percentage points _ to roughly 50 percent _ with shifts against the war found among most demographic groups.

The elderly are generally more opposed to the war than younger voters. ``So far, Bush hasn’t made a bad decision,″ says Jim Pazzanita, 19, a mechanic closing up a Beaver, Pa., gas station for the night.

Women who once viewed Bush as a protector of their families after Sept. 11 now fear he’ll send their children to war _ or war will make the United States a bigger target.

``We can’t win and we can’t afford to lose,″ says Mary Hostnik, 65, an independent voter who was visiting Beaver from East Palestine, Ohio. ``It’s getting to smell a lot like Vietnam.″

A Pew Research Center poll says independent women supported any Democrat over Bush 49-26 percent in October _ a huge shift from April, when the same group backed Bush 46-27.


Politicians don’t know what to make of it.

Sitting in a flag-bedecked diner, Hart says voters in her district support Bush and the war, though concerns are mounting. She wants the White House to talk more openly and effectively about the inevitable sacrifices of war.

She warns that a Democrat like Rep. Dick Gephardt, who voted to authorize war but has criticized Bush’s reconstruction plans, could cause the president major trouble in the general election.

``Gephardt supported the war and now he’s asking questions _ just like most people in my district,″ she says.

Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell says he, too, is hearing concerns raised by voters who once supported the conflict.

``I think the president will have time to turn it around if he skillfully negotiates a United Nations force into Iraq and points to a way for us to get out,″ the governor says.

Inside the American Legion, bartender Jeanette Rice serves beer and opinions. ``It stinks,″ she says of the war.

Jim Dixon, 62, rubs his white beard and mustache as he recalls Bush posing in a flight suit aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. ``He’s a show horse, nothing more,″ Dixon says.

Thinking more of it, the retired Navy submariner raises a bottle of beer to his lips and whispers: ``God bless the president. God bless them troops.″


Associated Press writer Sam Hananel in Washington contributed to this story.

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