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Change of heartland

On the third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, many Indianians are no longer strongly behind the war

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The third anniversary of the Iraq invasion unleashed a surge of pessimism at a local farmers' market here, where stalwart Republicans, standing amid aisles of produce and miracle cures, said President Bush has messed up a war that looks more like Vietnam every day.

''It's chaos,'' said Roger Madaras, who voted twice for Bush. ''How many more people are going to be killed? We were going in to free the people of Iraq, but as far as I'm concerned, a lot of them are worse off today than they were under the dictatorship.''

Madaras, the owner of a plumbing company, said he believed Bush when the president declared major combat to be over in May 2003, and is ''disgusted'' that Bush's rhetoric was hollow. And he is far from alone.

Support for Bush and his handling of Iraq is sharply eroding across the American heartland, where the overcast skies and the muddy fields of late winter matched a sense of gloom about Bush and the war.

This month, the Indianapolis Star released poll findings that Bush's approval rating among Indiana voters stood at 37 percent -- a drop of 18 points over the past year. The numbers echoed national polls, but were particularly shocking in a state that has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964, and where Democratic presidential contenders often do not bother to campaign.

''A 37 percent approval rating in Indiana for a Republican president is unheard of,'' said Brian Howey, who runs a newsletter for Indiana state political insiders. ''Those are Bill Clinton or John Kerry numbers in Indiana. So there is something seriously awry going on right now.''

In scattered rural diners and small-town restaurants adorned with 9/11-vintage American flag posters, support for the troops remains high. But many in Indiana also say the war has not turned out the way they thought it would three years ago, and they question whether Bush has what it takes to lead the troops into a happy ending.

Standing behind the counter where she sells bird houses and seed at the farmers' market, Beverly Beisel said she is increasingly fearful that Iraq will inevitably fall apart as soon as US soldiers leave -- making a mockery of the deaths sustained until then.

''It's not going well, that's for sure,'' Beisel said. ''I don't like that fact that we started it. I thought Bush was actually going after the terrorists, wherever they were. We thought they had weapons that they were hiding.''

Beisel said she doesn't blame Bush because ''he can only deal with the intelligence he was given'' and still supports him because she opposes abortion. But she added that plenty of her friends think ''we should get out of there and they're probably sorry they voted for him.''

Drinking coffee at Louie's Café in LaPorte, Ken Schreiber, who commands respect among the regulars because he coached the local high school baseball team to seven state championships, said he doesn't understand why the administration never sent enough troops in to stabilize Iraq's security.

Schreiber said he primarily blames the ''liberal media'' and ''partisan politics'' for the president's free-falling poll numbers. But he also blames Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for giving Bush ''some bad advice'' about how Iraqis would ''kiss our feet'' for ridding them of Hussein.

''I'm frustrated like everyone else is frustrated,'' he said. ''It's a lingering war like Vietnam. But I still don't think it was a mistake to go in.''

As more and more Hoosiers find themselves making the comparison that only liberals and antiwar protesters made a year ago -- Iraq is like Vietnam -- some say they are also starting to doubt Bush's competence to protect America from terrorism on the home front.

John Lackman, a retired manager at an aircraft wheels and brakes factory who was eating breakfast at a table near Schreiber, said the slow federal response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster last year gave many pause.

''That New Orleans situation just piled it on top of the Iraq War,'' Lackman said. ''The security issue is paramount in everyone's mind. If they couldn't respond adequately to that situation, how are they going to respond if there's a dirty bomb?''

Others sharply disagreed, saying local officials were primarily to blame for the New Orleans disaster. But there was nearly unanimous incredulity across Indiana at Bush's support for a deal that would have put a Dubai company in charge of six US ports.

Many connected the Dubai ports row to a state controversy -- Republican Governor Mitch Daniels's efforts to lease the Indiana Toll Road to a foreign firm for the next 75 years. Support for Daniels, a former top aide to Bush, is just as low as it is for the president.

''People don't think Indiana should sell its toll road to foreigners, and they don't want someone with a turban running our ports,'' said Denny Thomas, a retired trucker sitting near video poker machines at the back of a smoke-filled tobacco bar in LaPorte.

Daniels, who ran in 2004 on the slogan ''My Man Mitch,'' as Bush once referred to him, has also drawn fire for ramming through a law requiring Indiana to join the rest of the country on daylight saving time. The measure is wildly unpopular in rural areas.

Pouring coffee behind the bar of Allie's Café in South Bend, restaurant owner Chuck Sulok -- a self-declared ''partisan supporter'' of both Bush and Daniels -- said he fears what the ''double whammy'' of Bush's and Daniels's unpopularity could do in the coming election.

If Democrats can pick up 15 seats, they can retake control of the US House of Representatives for the first time since the Republican tidal wave of 1994, when the GOP picked up 54 seats. Sulok says today's atmosphere in Indiana reminds him of 1994 in reverse.

''The mid-term elections are coming and it scares me to death, speaking as a partisan Republican,'' he said. ''There's a difference between regular dissatisfaction and a dissent that will move an election. There's that feeling in the air.''

Joe Donnelly hopes Sulok's fears are well-founded. Donnelly, a local lawyer, is running for Congress against a Republican incumbent, Chris Chocola, in a rematch from 2004. He lost last time by 9 points -- but that was when the Iraq War was still young.

Donnelly said the drop in support for Bush and his handling of the war could swing the election his way, accusing Chocola of being a ''rubber stamp'' for the administration. Chocola, whose campaign netted $600,000 in a Bush-headlined fund-raiser in February, did not respond to an interview request.

''Truly, everyone out here wants the Iraq mission to succeed,'' Donnelly said. ''But everyone is becoming more concerned and uncomfortable. What we need are Congress people who will ask President Bush tough questions, not be rubber stamps.''

John Roos, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame, said the dissatisfaction with Bush's record in Iraq might hand the 2006 election to Democrats by persuading disgruntled Republicans across the American heartland to stay home.

''It's not that they have become Democrats, and it's not that they have decided the war on Iraq and especially the war on terrorism is wrong,'' Roos said. ''The people of Indiana just think [Bush] is not very good at being president.''

Waiting to be seated at Allie's Café, Lee Connett, a retired automotive engineer, said he wondered about the Iraq War from the beginning. He thought it seemed like a diversion from the hunt for the Al Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden.

But he voted for Bush anyway because he couldn't stand Kerry, the Democratic nominee. Now, he said, as it becomes ever more clear that ''Bush doesn't have a plan'' for Iraq, he doesn't know what he should do.

''I voted for Bush in 2000 and in 2004 . . . because he seemed like the lesser of two evils as I saw it at the time,'' Connett said. ''How could anyone know he was going to do what he's done? He's not settled anything in Iraq and we're getting no clue as to what the outcome is going to be.''

All the talk lately about Bush and the problems with Iraq bemuses Susan Grimes, a waitress at the South Junction Café, a lonely outpost at the intersection of state roads 6 and 35. Grimes said listening to her customers complain has turned her off politics.

''I hear all these people come in and say: 'That President Bush, we got to get that guy out of there.' But you ask them who they voted for, and they hush up because they were the ones who voted him in. He's their boy.''

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