Swing State Swing: Oregon

Rodney Kalka plays the trumpet on the streets of Portland. He says of the importance of this year's election, "In the scheme of things, if I could put it on a scale of 1 to 10, I would say 100."
CBS/David Paul Kuhn
We asked our chief political writer, David Paul Kuhn, to get in a car and drive from Portland, Maine to Portland, Ore., via all the Battleground States – those states expected to be the most hotly contested in the presidential election. Armed with a pen, laptop, camera and plenty of No Doz, Kuhn is sending back dispatches that will offer impressions and snapshots of a country making up its mind.



Rodney Kalka somberly plays his trumpet as the sun breaks the clouds. Divorce brought Rodney to the streets of Portland. He has no rights to his daughter back in Omaha.

But Rodney's optimistic. He says he and his girlfriend are doing "all right." He believes John Kerry "is really beginning to get the country to take a second look at where America is."

Rodney has taken a second look at himself. The thin 27-year-old, with an Irish cap and trim beard is remaking his life.

"They say pride kills," he continues, "but I think pride has killed us so much as far as this last president, even with Clinton."

It's been a bad day for Rodney. He can only play a slow drag on his trumpet, with measured presses of the keys. He is trying to speak to his daughter in Omaha, to no avail.

"I wasn't the greatest husband. I wasn't the greatest father. I was young, stupid and horrible," he says.

His music fits the mood of Portland today – fading washed-out sky and drizzle that comes and goes. He plays on the street and people pass, his black case filled with only a few dollars.

"I do this for bus fare and maybe a sandwich," he says. "I enjoy it. I don't care too much about the money. I play how I feel."

It's an excuse to play. He has another job, working for a documents service that assists law firms. Rodney's friends are voting for third-party candidates.

Ralph Nader won 77,000 votes in Oregon in 2000. Al Gore barely was able to win the state; a lead that would have been certain became only 17,000 votes because of the Green Party candidate.

Rodney hopes Kerry wins the state's seven electoral votes this time. He tells his friends, "Kerry may not be the best pick but he's the best choice we have so far."

He emphasizes that this is the time to be pragmatic not idealistic. As far as the importance of the election, he says, "in the scheme of things, if I could put it on a scale of 1 to 10, I would say 100."

And then he speaks as if the president is right in front him. "I'm sorry Mr. Bush, but you're draining our country financially."

"He's poured something like $80 billion into this war," Rodney says. "That's $80 billion that could have been poured back into our kids, our families, our elders.

"If you go to any city in the United States, and you go into the inner urban areas, there are children who go to sleep at night wondering where their next meal is going to come from, how they are going to pay for school, how their parents are going to get by," he says. "A 4-year-old and 5-year-old shouldn't worry about these things."

Jay Derum is an attorney in Portland. At his firm, the senior partners tend to lean GOP and the juniors do not.

"The office is divided between Republicans and Democrats," the 40-year-old says. "The Democrats I know have very strong feeling but we try not to talk about it around the water cooler for fear of offending our Republican bosses."

In a gray suit, Jay says plainly, "I've been very disappointed in the current administration since day one."

He says he "was disillusioned with the way they ascended to power and were basically appointed by the Supreme Court. And I think if for no other reason then to start with a clean slate in this country, we should get rid of the administration."

Jay hopes George W. Bush loses because he is a Democrat, but he says it's more than that.

"I am disappointed in the reasons and justifications for the Iraq war," he explains. "I am disappointed in their environmental policies and their lack of respect for the citizenry."

It's easier for Jay to say what he doesn't like about Bush than what he does like about Kerry.

"He seems to have some good presidential qualities," Jay says of Kerry. "I think in a lot of people's mind, he is the lesser of two evils choice. But I think he is far less evil that I think it is an intelligent choice."

But this is all left outside the office. "In the spirit of maintaining working relationships around the office, we don't talk about it."

And, he adds, "in the spirit of keeping my job, I certainly don't talk to the higher-ups about these things."

Don't blame George Bush. The president is a man of "convictions," says Alex Opsahl. He believes these convictions outweigh the blunders.

"The liberals try to blame too much of what happened on him. I think John Kerry is a flip-flopper," says Alex, a 19-year-old in a suit on a break from his investment house internship.

He doesn't love George Bush. "Although I don't think George Bush might be the best person for the job, there are a lot of people that could do the job better, of the candidates I think he's the best one."

Iraq bothers Alex. He thinks it was mishandled. And for this reason, he can't get all the way behind Bush. He knows it's young men his age dying.

But, he adds bluntly, "These people that joined the reserves did it very well knowing that they might be called by their country. This is just one of those situations that they were called. They're getting military benefits at the same time. I think that's a choice you need to consider before joining the service."

Alex considers himself a moderate Republican. He's not so moderate that he doesn't disdain Kerry. Again, all he sees is a "flip-flopper."

His example is that during the "1991 Gulf War, [Kerry] voted against it, when there were weapons of mass destruction, [Saddam Hussein] invaded another country and we had France and Germany supporting us.

"This current situation, there are no weapons of mass destruction," Alex continues. "[Saddam] did not invade another country, France and Germany are not supporting us, yet he continues to say that with the knowledge he has now he would use force. It's kind of an ironic situation."

Lisa Marvel's son just asked the difference between a Republican and Democrat. The 35-year-old Democrat tried to be judicious in her explanation.

"I just explained to him that most of the time Republicans are focused on running the company." She catches her Freudian slip: "the country," she corrects herself.

"They want big business to put money back into the system. This is why from time to time they tend to overlook environmental issues and things like that so they can keep the country running economically, whereas the Democrat Party tends to look at environmental issues and helping everyone.

"He's a Canadian citizen," Lisa says of her son, "so I explained to him that the Democratic tends to run things like they do in Canada, where they want everyone to have insurance."

Lisa's mother, Lynn Prater, is a Republican. She contested some of her daughter's explanation.

Lynn doesn't "feel Republicans avoid environmental issues or lack of concern for environmental issues. But business is important for the country to continue."

Like so many, Lynn is not enthusiastic about the candidate who will get her vote. Democrats and Republicans alike, across these 19 swing states are voting more out of pragmatism than ideals.

Though this is truer with Kerry supporters, those backing President Bush also are skeptical of their candidate.

"I'm not entirely in support of Bush but I will definitely vote for him over Kerry," she says. "I think there is a lot of question about Iraq, why we are in Iraq, but I'm not sure Kerry is the best person to carry us into our future."

Lynn and Lisa look like mother and daughter. Lynn has redder hair, but that's from Lisa's coloring – she's a stylist.

Just like her mother, Lisa shrugs when talking about her candidate.

"I don't have a lot of faith in either of them," Lisa says. "If I had to choose, I choose John Kerry." But she adds, "I'm not enthusiastic about him."

Lisa can't talk politics without talking about her brother. He flies a Cobra helicopter for the Marines. He's about to go back to Iraq.

"It's really difficult," Lisa says. "On the one side I want to be supportive of him. He's in there, he's doing what he thinks he needs to do to protect our country. He's doing his job. But on the other hand, it's unfortunate that the people that are sending him in there, I don't think are giving him the direction and the guidance."

Lisa adds that she could use a little guidance, too. She shakes her head. She's voting for John Kerry, but that's immaterial beside her hope that she sees her brother again.

By David Paul Kuhn