The Heart of the Battleground ; Watching Emmaus, Pa., Voters Make Up Their Minds

By Ann Scott Tyson Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, September 29, 2000 | Go to article overview

The Heart of the Battleground ; Watching Emmaus, Pa., Voters Make Up Their Minds


Ann Scott Tyson Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Tucked away among the wooded foothills of the Lehigh Mountains, the 18th-century village of Emmaus - with its historic Main Street, staid Pennsylvania Dutch traditions, and lilting German accents - appears at first to be trapped in time.

Once a closed Moravian religious community, Emmaus is the kind of insular town where the mayor, Winfield "Winnie" Iobst, used to be the milkman, as was his father, who was also mayor. Their ancestor was the first major, then known as "burgess."

But scratch the surface, and the quaint, orderly little borough is rife with small-town political turmoil and - as far as the US presidential race goes - utter unpredictability. Indeed, Emmaus lies in one of America's most notorious swing counties, in a vital swing state.

"It's a quintessential swing county," says Pennsylvania pollster Terry Madonna of Millersville University, near Lancaster.

In recent weeks, both presidential candidates, Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore, have spent large chunks of time and money to win Pennsylvania's 23 electoral votes, more than any other swing state. They have crisscrossed the state in recent months, and polls now show Mr. Gore ahead.

Yet the race is far too close to call in Emmaus and across the Lehigh Valley, where old, heavily Democratic blue-collar urban areas intersect with Republican farming country and newer, white- collar suburbs.

Unlike in the rest of the nation, Democrats here tend to be culturally conservative and Republicans economically moderate. This mix of voters - canvassed recently on Main Street - is a hard-to- please, independent-minded crowd, fickle enough to unnerve even the most veteran campaign consultants for Mr. Bush and Gore.

On the fence

"I'm a lifelong Republican," says Emmaus native Jim Baker over breakfast at the Mercantile Club, a private, century-old local businessman's establishment that still permits only men as full members.

Come election day, however, the financial consultant might flip the lever for Gore.

"I'm on the fence, absolutely," says Mr. Baker, between bites of the local specialty, "scrapple," a fried slab of cornmeal and ground pork doused with maple syrup.

Baker's willingness to break with his party is not unusual for voters in Emmaus. Indeed, local party clubs have largely broken down since the 1980s, when Democrats dominated, according to Mayor Iobst. Emmaus's 7,000 registered voters now include slightly more Republicans than Democrats. In 1992, they chose the elder George Bush by a small, 2 percent margin (one-fifth voted for Texas billionaire Ross Perot). Then in 1996, they swung to back President Bill Clinton - but only by 12 votes.

Like other residents, Baker is not basing his decision on a broad survey of Bush and Gore policies. Instead, he is focusing on specific issues that matter most to him, as well as on his beliefs about the candidates' character and trustworthiness.

Although he cringes at the potential for wasteful spending by Democrats (his mother is from Massachusetts, which he calls "tax-a- chusetts"), Baker has a bigger concern about Bush - in his own backyard.

Baker is fighting a Dallas company's bid to build a power plant on agricultural land adjacent to his parents' 130-acre farm, where he lives in a log house. "I have no love for Texas," he says. "I feel bullied. They are dominating and threatening and imposing."

Baker sees a similar disregard for the environment in Bush and his running mate Dick Cheney, whom he calls "big oil men." "I look at Texas and I see a lot of disasters," he says, noting the pollution in Houston. The upshot, he says, may be a vote for Gore.

A blast furnace and pajama plant

A few blocks away on Chestnut Street, retired truck driver Mike Petrohoy sits on the front porch of his modest, streetside brick duplex, watching the traffic go by. …

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