Thursday, October 16, 2008

"My Own Private Focus Group"

From this piece by Timothy Egan of the NYT, October 8, 2008...

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. —- I didn’t hook up people to electronic monitoring devices, nothing to measure leg trickles and blood-sugar spikes in response to off-key talking points.

I had no magic maps, no demographic weighting formulas. I simply went to the heart of one of the fastest-growing, most Republican counties in the land — as red as rib-eye steak on the e-coli side of raw — and wandered aimlessly, like John McCain in Tuesday’s debate.

Here in Colorado Springs — the Vatican of evangelical political power, home to the Air Force Academy and a community where optimism usually matches the sunrise glow at the base of Pikes Peak – you can see what will happen in less than a month.

My friends: it’s not good for Senator McCain.

“As a small business owner, it’s very hard to watch a lifetime of hard work and savings just wither away in the last two weeks,” said Jan Martin, a native of this more-than-mile-high city, and a lifelong Republican. “The debate on Tuesday night has, if anything, bolstered my opinion.”

So Jan Martin, who also serves on the city council, will cross party lines in less than a month and vote Barack Obama for president, she said. She’s not leaving the Republican party — she’s deserting the nominee.

But…but…what about Bill Ayers? That radical! Obama served on some charity boards with him — he must be a terrorist sympathizer! And what about Sarah Palin’s claim, with a knowing wink, that Obama “is not a man who sees America the way you and I see America.”

The sludge of insinuation is loose, but has no more staying power than the Chicago Cubs in a playoff series. (And I like the Cubbies.) All the desperate demagogues of talk radio and Fox News, summoning the kooks and fringe lunatics for one last blast of scary Barack Hussein Obama talk, are melting in 2008’s bonfire of economic vanities.

You want scary? How about this: two trillion dollars. That’s the amount that Americans have lost over the last 15 months in their retirement accounts.

“The financial crisis is point number one,” said Pastor Brady Boyd, head of New Life Church, 250,000 square feet of concentrated Christianity. “These attacks against the candidates are just irrelevant right now. Why are you all attacking one another when we’re dying out here?”

The pastor oversees a mega-church with 10,000 members. When I was here four years ago, Pastor Ted Haggard, the onetime head of the National Association of Evangelicals, boasted of his conference calls with Karl Rove and his deep affection for George Bush.

But then, Pastor Ted was a very bad boy, caught up in a meth and male prostitute scandal. He left New Life and went off to get rehabbed at some place that was supposed to make him right in the head.

Pastor Brady Boyd is a different breed of evangelical. His political suggestions this year, delivered in a sermon on Sunday and repeated in our interview, were simple.

“The only advice I give is pray, fast and vote, and that can be for any political party,” he said.

This year, the church hasn’t even heard from the McCain campaign. “What’s happening to us is less allegiance to the Republican party, and more to our core principles,” he said.

Which gets us to the second message to come from Colorado Springs: on election day, there will be no repeat of 2004, when people woke up to the surprise that “moral values” was the leading issue of the campaign, according to exit polls.

Down the road, Focus on the Family is still in a bit a of dither over what to do about John McCain. James Dobson, the founder of what is essentially a political action committee for evangelicals, had said earlier this year he would never vote for McCain. Never. Not under any circumstances.

Now he’s changed his mind. Sort of.

“While I said I will not endorse either candidate this year, I can say I’m now supporting John McCain,” he said in his October newsletter. However, “the senator continues to embrace issues that concern me.”

Dobson’s Web site contains outdated-looking scare alerts with headlines like “American Airlines extends special benefits to homosexuals.”

Dobson is yesterday. Boyd is tomorrow, saying that the environment, the poor, and helping those in his church who’ve lost a job or a house are things that matter to his congregation.

Abortion? Homosexuals? Bill Ayers?

“To be focused on those things at a time when people are hurting would really be to the detriment of families,” said Boyd.

Obama will not win Colorado Springs. John Kerry got just 32 percent of the vote in this county in 2004. But if Obama gets 40 percent — which is what Democrats expect based on the surge of newly registered voters and independents who are following Jan Martin’s path — he will win this state, and the election.

That leaves the circus of Sarah Palin and the sad specter of a snarling John McCain fading as they embrace the slippery bonds of the last century.

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