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Wal-Mart symbolizing political divide

VIROQUA, Wis. -- Lingering in the parking lot off the dusty highway with her 2-year-old daughter and a friend, Jessie Lawrence tried to imagine life here without the Wal-Mart.

"I go here for everything," Lawrence, 24, said last week, displaying bags of discount-priced Easter eggs, jelly beans, candles, and shampoo. "What else is there? Where else can I save $150 or more?"

That is an increasingly hot question on the campaign trail these days in the midst of debates over trade policy, outsourcing, and unemployment. Democrats have vilified Wal-Mart as an icon of corporate greed for its reliance on cheap, foreign-made goods. Republicans have countered by pointing to satisfied shoppers like Lawrence.

Perhaps in an era of deep divisions about everything from marriage to national security, it was only a matter of time before conservatives and liberals took sides over this staple of American life: The giant blue-and-white discount stores that dot rural and suburban freeways, enticing shoppers with smiling "greeters," snack bars, and low prices.

The Wal-Mart divide is exceptionally intense, representing a wide range of ideological -- and cultural -- flashpoints. Senator John F. Kerry has called Wal-Mart "disgraceful" and a symbol of what is "wrong with America" after seeing reports the discount shopping giant had given its workers inadequate health insurance.

During the primaries, Howard Dean attacked its effect on small-town America, and Dennis J. Kucinich warned voters they would all end up with "Wal-Mart jobs" -- in his view, miserable ones -- if current trade agreements are not revised.

Even Teresa Heinz Kerry has weighed in, saying Wal-Mart "destroys communities" by driving local competition out of business.

In turn, Wal-Mart, a rapidly growing political force in its own right, has cast its lot with Republicans.

In expanding its lobbying arm and nearly tripling its overall campaign donations since 2000, Wal-Mart manages the second-largest political action committee in the country. And more than $1 million of its money has gone to Republicans over the past two years, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Unlike earlier corporate punching bags with close ties to the GOP, however, Wal-Mart is not a hidden power. It is one of the largest employers in the country, a familiar presence from coast to coast, and almost a necessity in lower-income communities and rural areas such as Viroqua. It is also inexpensive and convenient -- two qualities hard to argue with. In the face of Democratic criticism, Republicans are confident they can cast Wal-Mart as an emblem of American egalitarianism, grown from a single enterprise started by Sam Walton in Arkansas.

"When you've grown up as wealthy as Howard Dean and John Kerry, Wal-Mart is just not a place you're particularly familiar with," said Dave Winston, a Republican strategist. "The idea of being able to go in and save when you purchase something, trying to stretch your $25,000 income, that's just something they're not familiar with."

To emphasize that point, Republicans are quick to note that Kerry's wife owns at least $1 million in Wal-Mart stock, according to financial disclosure reports.

The potential ripple effects from both sides of the debate are easy to spot in this town in western Wisconsin, part of a fickle district in a battleground state that Al Gore won by less than 6,000 votes in 2000. New supercenters are under construction, with all the controversy that entails, at a time when thousands of manufacturing jobs have disappeared and voters are worried about foreign competition and corporate greed.

Voters here hear the horror stories from around the country: allegations, well-publicized by the unions, that the company violates labor laws, gives poor employee benefits, and forces prices down to drive local retailers out.

"There's a segment of the population that believes Wal-Mart is bad and I personally know people who won't shop there," said Matt Johnson, editor of the local newspaper, the Vernon County Broadcaster. "It's a good issue for this election."

Wal-Mart steadfastly denies the accusations, and has launched a forceful advertising campaign to promote its concern for employees. Erik Winborn, vice president for national governmental relations, says that the vast majority of workers have health care, are paid above the minimum wage, and enjoy above-average working conditions. Many of the public charges against Wal-Mart, he said, are simply untrue.

In rural spots like Viroqua, nestled amid rolling hills and dairy farms, Wal-Mart supporters seem inclined to agree. Even some in the business community, who at first worried about Wal-Mart's effect, have reported getting a boost from the neighboring shopping magnet, while students and residents said they appreciated no longer driving 30 minutes or more to shop for groceries.

Lawrence, the 24-year-old mother, said she does not buy Democrats' accusations that Wal-Mart destroys communities and exports jobs. She knows about 100 people from the area who work there and recalled that during high school, she and her friends relied on the 24-hour shopping center as a source of recreation.

"It's so convenient, and everything is reasonable here," she said. "Where else do you go at night, except to walk around Wal-Mart?" Lawrence also said she intends to vote for Bush.

Winborn, the Wal-Mart executive, suggested that such support could translate into votes if Democrats continue their attacks. "I think people don't understand: We have 1 million associates," Winborn said. "They vote. Their families vote. When people criticize Wal-Mart, on the floor of the Senate or on the campaign trail, our associates will react, because it reflects on them."

The diverging aspects of Wal-Mart make it a complex political target, according to a business consultant, Burt Flickinger, who has worked with both Wal-Mart and its competitors. On the one hand, he said, the Wal-Mart phenomenon has lowered the price of consumer goods in some areas as much as 25 to 35 percent.

"Democrats have seen this as a huge economic benefit to their core constituency, in lowering the common denominator costs of food, drugs, and everyday items for the working majority of the Democratic electorate," Flickinger said.

But as Wal-Mart has ballooned -- it's the largest retailer and the largest private employer in the world, with more than 3,500 retail outlets -- it has adopted a big-business mentality, especially in opposing unionization, Flickinger said. And it has other enemies, from owners of small businesses to women's rights advocates.

Representative Ron Kind, a Democrat who represents Wisconsin's Third District, grapples with the complexities of Wal-Mart in ways national politicians do not.

The highway from Minneapolis to Eau Claire is dotted with Wal-Mart trucks, and his native La Crosse area is home to two Wal-Marts; another is on the way. At a recent meeting with voters in his district, Kind faced questions directly related to outsourcing, with one elderly constituent asking "why the unemployed have to go to China to get a job."

But rather than follow his fellow Democrats in criticizing the corporation, Kind carefully pointed out the double-edged nature of the debate.

"There's that disconnect," Kind said. "I see it back here in the district all the time. Everyone decries the lack of jobs and jobs going overseas, but they don't think twice about walking into a Wal-Mart and buying this stuff. What they really want is quality and price."

Anne Kornblut can be reached at akornblut@globe.com

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