March 2004: The Associated Press

1-2004-by-state

The Associated Press State & Local Wire

March 6, 2004, Saturday, BC cycle

A rarity in Bush Country: Voters split on presidential race

BYLINE: By BOBBY ROSS JR., Associated Press Writer

SECTION: Political News

LENGTH: 889 words

DATELINE: DAINGERFIELD, Texas

From the regulars at the Hawkins Family Restaurant to the union members who work at Lone Star Steel, folks in this East Texas town tend to vote Democratic – at least in local elections.

Dwight Gray, a retired Texas state trooper, is one of five Morris County sheriff candidates – all Democrats.

“It’s pretty much a Democratic county,” said Gray, 57, nursing a cup of coffee as he made his pitch to a prospective voter enjoying fried eggs and bacon.

Turn the discussion to Tuesday’s presidential primary, though, and allegiances drift like the cigarette smoke that floats through this one-time Dairy Queen along U.S. 259, about 140 miles east of Dallas.

The views are divergent in Morris County, which Democrat Al Gore won – but by just 74 votes – in 2000. Gore got 2,455 votes, 50.2 percent, and Republican George W. Bush 2,381, 48.7 percent, making this one of the few places in Bush’s home state where the vote was close.

“I don’t know why Bush got so many votes,” Gray said. “People voting for the man, I guess, instead of the party. Probably because he’s from Texas.”

Daingerfield, the county seat, is a mix of Bible Belt social concerns and union members’ free trade fears.

It’s a hat-tipping town of 2,500 with a McDonald’s, a Sonic and, for a taste of the local flavor, Outlaw’s Bar-B-Que. Fading posters still celebrate Daingerfield High’s 1983 and 1985 Class 3A state football titles.

“Go Tigers,” proclaims the sign at an oil change business.

While an anomaly in Texas, the presidential split in Morris County is, in many ways, a microcosm of the nation.

“It’s a little bit of blue America and a little bit of red America in that one county,” said Matthew Streb, a political scientist at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

But Texas, where Bush won 230 of 254 counties in 2000, does not figure to be a major player in 2004 presidential politics. The last Democrat to win Texas was Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry’s last serious challenger, John Edwards, pulled out of the race after Kerry’s decisive primary and caucus victories on Super Tuesday – a week before the Texas primary.

“Of course, we’re going to get out there and vote and support Mr. Kerry,” said Randy Dean, president of the United Steelworkers of America, Local 4134. “But you know, there’s not much doubt that Texas will go with Mr. Bush overall.”

For Martha Martin, 62, secretary-treasurer at the First Baptist Church of Daingerfield, Bush’s opposition to abortion and gay marriage makes him the choice.

“I think he will go down in history as one of our great presidents,” Martin said.

She said she prays Bush will win re-election, “because I think he’s a moral, upstanding person, and I think he seeks the Lord in what he does.”

At the Lone Star Steel union hall, about seven miles south of Daingerfield, campaign handouts stacked on a table declare: “When Democrats vote, Democrats win.”

The steel mill, with about 1,000 employees, is Morris County’s leading employer.

Dean said he’s optimistic Kerry will fare better in Morris County than Gore did.

“I just believe a lot of folks are fed up with Mr. Bush’s policies,” said Dean, a large color photograph of union supporter John F. Kennedy hanging on the wall behind him.

Back at the restaurant, six regulars gathered around one table are split right down the middle: three for Bush, three for Kerry.

Lonnie Moore, 62, grinning from under his cowboy hat, said he voted early in the Democratic primary – for Edwards.

But Moore said he won’t support Kerry in November.

“I don’t like his voting record,” he said. “He’s a little bit too radical, liberal. It’ll hurt him here.”

Moore said he likes Bush because “he’s very decisive. He makes up his mind and does what he says he’s going to do.”

Asked about the president’s handling of Iraq, Moore said, “He’s done a fair job. … There’s as many people killed every day in the United States as there have been killed in the whole war.”

Across the table, Dean Skelton, 74, a lifelong Daingerfield resident, scoffed at his friend’s comments.

“I’m a Democrat,” Skelton said. “He’s a Republican.”

“No, I’m a Democrat,” Moore replied with a smile.

“You can’t be a Democrat and vote for Bush,” Skelton said.

“I vote 90 percent Democrat,” Moore said. “But I will split the vote.”

Skelton admitted that he, too, once voted for a Republican: Richard Nixon in 1968.

“Everybody makes a mistake every now and then,” he said.

Asked if he likes Kerry, Skelton hedged. “I like whoever the Democratic Party runs, put it that way,” he said.

Reminded of his friend’s description of the Massachusetts senator as a liberal, Skelton shot back that only a Democrat could reverse the deficit damage Bush has caused in just four years. This year’s projected $477 billion deficit is a record in dollar terms.

At a corner table, Bryan Freeman, 29, ordered breakfast with his wife, mother and 2-year-old daughter. Freeman said he voted for Bush in 2000 – but won’t do it again.

“Just what I’ve seen, I haven’t been real impressed with Bush,” he said. “I work construction and it seems like there’s a lot less jobs now than when (President Bill) Clinton was in office. So I think I’ll test out the Democrat.”

Reach Bobby Ross Jr. at bross(at)ap.org.