The View from the Heartland


Eau Claire, Wisconsin

These are battleground wards, of a battleground district, in a battleground state that’s supposedly being scoured by canvassers in pursuit of the few remaining undecided voters. I’ve landed here, a week before the first presidential debate, on a less frenetic mission. I want to listen, one by one, to a cross-section of Wisconsin voters, hoping to discover what I can about how Iraq is registering, especially among Bush voters, not only as a campaign issue but as a portent of what the country may face in the years ahead. But nothing much seems to be happening on the sun-dappled autumn weekend before the first debate between President Bush and his challenger, John Kerry. The battle is at its fiercest indoors on TV screens, where images of terrorists, terror bombings, and troops under fire are starting to pop up in political ads, but given the run of good weather, most of those screens are unattended even when they’re on.

In other words, battleground states are like anywhere else, except that they soak up television dollars and the travel time of candidates. The President is said to be ahead in the polls, but Wisconsin polls of registered voters can be unreliable because registration here is ongoing, all the way to election day. George and Laura Bush have been to Wisconsin on separate visits in the last few days; Kerry and Dick Cheney are on their way. And, of course, Wisconsin is a ground zero of a relentless television duel being waged by the campaigns and their supposedly arm’s-length surrogates such as the Progress for America Voter Fund (anti-Kerry) and the Public Campaign Action Fund (anti-Bush), in a contest that’s all but invisible to viewers in most of the states where the campaigns, reading their polls, don’t bother to buy broadcast time.

TV stations in Eau Claire and La Crosse, by contrast, have received, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, $3.36 million of the $22.4 million already spent on political advertising in Wisconsin, enough for thousands of airings in these overlapping media markets where a single showing of a thirty-second spot can cost under $300, unless it’s in prime time or during the breaks of Green Bay Packer football games. For the moment, the Bush and Kerry brands are likelier to show up on screens in western Wisconsin than Levitra and Viagra, even Honda and Ford. And campaign attack ads, it soon becomes apparent, are one way of bringing home what’s termed the global war on terror. (By coincidence or design, another way will follow hard on the election: a National Guard unit from western Wisconsin, the 128th Battalion of the First Infantry, is in training in Mississippi under orders that assign it to Iraq for a year starting in November. Maybe a quarter of its 680 troops are from Eau Claire, a city of 62,000 that has sustained only one casualty, shrapnel wounds to a sergeant in the Army reserves. But four men from nearby counties have…

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