Politics & Government

In small town Missouri, Iraq weighs on voters' minds

NEW MADRID, Mo. — Riley Bock's family will spend its second Memorial Day Monday without their son, Camden, who was killed a year and a half ago in Iraq.

His father, a high school English teacher in this small southeast Missouri community, sees some hope for changing the policy by electing a Democratic president in November.

But like so many others in this town of 3,500 along the Mississippi River, about three hours south of St. Louis, he also knows that no one election is going to make a seismic difference.

"A president is a person of limited power," said Bock, "but let's give Barack Obama the opportunity to change the policy. I like John McCain. I really hate not to vote for him, but he's in the wrong party. I don't think the Republicans are going to change anything."

Paul Meacham, a New Madrid police officer, is not convinced. A military veteran who served in Kuwait, he's no fan of the current Iraq conflict. But Meacham, 38, who's never voted Republican for president, is thinking of going for likely GOP nominee McCain.

"He would deal with the war in a way so my two-year-old daughter wouldn't have to go back and fight some day," Meacham said.

The attitudes toward Iraq in this small town, in a state where the vote usually predicts the outcome of presidential elections, are not easy to categorize. Some 78 Missouri residents have died in the Iraq war, and all but 14 have come from outside the big cities of Kansas City and St. Louis. When a soldier from a place like New Madrid dies, everyone seems to either know him or her or the family.

That makes it harder to condemn the war, or to support it, or to expect things to change because of an election.

At Rosie's Restaurant on Highway 61 or at Roger's Grocery on Main Street, you don't find people pounding their fists and demanding withdrawal. Iraq's the kind of issue, they say, that doesn't lend itself to easy solutions or simple candidate choices.

"One person isn't necessarily going to make the difference," said Kevin Sexton, a political science instructor at Southeast Missouri State University.

He expects to vote Democratic this fall, but explains, "We're so deep into the war now, I don't think one person is simply going to be able to end it."

People here also have a hard time shaking off the Republican party's image of national defender, even if they want out of Iraq.

"My sense is that people here say Iraq was a mistake and we need to get out of there," said Erwin Porter, a steelworker. "But then when you talk about national defense, people lean Republican.

"Democrats are viewed as being more willing to be diplomatic, and to a lot of people, that means they're weak."

Others contend that some people who say they may vote Republican because they trust the GOP on Iraq are hiding the real reason they would oppose Obama.

"They know Iraq has been a disaster, but they're just using every excuse they can find not to vote for a black man," said Ted Maltbia, a local pipefitter.

Not so, said R.D. Jennings, a cotton ginner. "Obama can talk to anybody about anything, but I just don't feel he's prepared to run the country," he said.

There are people who will vote Democratic to make a statement against the war. "It's past time for us to get out," said Ernestine Jackson, who runs an independent living facility.

Clearly, attitudes about where Iraq fits in the 2008 election are still works in progress.

Bock's son was a West Point graduate, class of '04. When the Iraq war began, his father recalled, "I can't remember what my feelings were about Iraq. I don't think I was supportive of going to war over U.N. inspections."

But he fully supported his son. "He was doing the right thing, serving his country," the father said. "What he did was part of being an American."

First Lt. Camden Bock, 24, died in October, 2006, when a roadside bomb detonated near his vehicle.

Everyone here knows the story, and a lot of people understand the military.

For Meacham, the police officer, military experience is critical.

"When you're 100 yards away, clearing a body out, and you see the human remains of what you just did," Meacham said, "you have to ask what coping skills can a leader offer a person who's been through that?"

He's not gung-ho for McCain, but feels "McCain understands the psychological stuff."

Whether he would do the right thing in Iraq, though, remains a question Meacham's still struggling with, five months from Election Day.

"I wish I knew," Meacham said, "what the right answer was."

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