Local, national issues combine to impact Arkansas elections

MOUNTAIN HOME, Ark. -- Voters here, like in most places, will be thinking about the economy, the Iraq war and health care when they go to the polls Nov. 4. But in Mountain Home, they'll also be thinking about a proposed hike in the 8% sales tax to pay for an indoor swimming pool in Cooper Park.

The pool's a big topic in this small Ozarks city of 11,000. It's an example of how national issues can influence local concerns and of how people across the USA will have more on their minds than presidential nominees Barack Obama and John McCain when they go to vote.

Mountain Home Mayor David Osmon, elected in 2006 in a city where municipal elections are conducted on a non-partisan basis, proposed the pool idea last year. Now it's on the ballot, right there with choices for president — as well as for City Council, county judge, sheriff and a statewide question of whether Arkansas should have a lottery.

Some residents, such as Howard Richert, 70, say they're not willing to pay extra and feel the addition to the city's outdoor pool is a luxury in difficult times.

"Too many people are living day-to-day," Richert said. "It's hard enough to pay for groceries. It's nice to have all this stuff if the economy was different."

Then there are the people on the other side. Linda Vornheder, 64, wants the pool and is willing to pay the higher tax. "People with chronic illnesses, like arthritis, will benefit from the low-impact exercise," she said.

Economy, war top issues

Mountain Home residents, along with residents across the state, might talk a lot about local issues, but they are well-acquainted with national politics and the way Washington works. It hasn't been that long since Democrat Bill Clinton, from down the road in Hope, went to the White House. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the state's former first lady, tried to get there herself this year.

And former governor Mike Huckabee, a Republican, won the Iowa caucuses this year.

While residents talk in the city's coffee shops and antique stores about the pool and other local issues, they're also eager to see how the next president will handle the big picture.

"The bottom line is the economy and the war," said resident Tom Fazio, 66, whose son fought in Iraq for 15 months. "Everybody's getting tired of higher prices. We've got to get a party to work for the working people and not the rich people."

A statewide poll by American Research Group Sept. 20-22 showed McCain leading Obama 53% to 41%, with 5% undecided among likely voters. That's consistent with past elections. George W. Bush received 54.3% of Arkansans' votes in 2004 and 51.3% in 2000. Mountain Home, where 63% of registered voters turned out in 2004, voted similarly to the rest of the state. Residents predict a larger turnout this election.

"A lot of people will go to the polls," said resident Bill Clements, 77. "The country has a lot more at stake than ever before."

Many of the people who live here — more than a third of whom are 65 and older according to the U.S. Census Bureau — are concerned about other expenses.

"We used to enjoy coming into town for a latte, or driving to the A&W for a root beer," said Euan Richardson, 60. "Now gas costs more than root beer. And with root beer, you get free refills."

Local Republicans say McCain has the experience to lead the country and were pleasantly surprised by his choice of running mate, Sarah Palin.

Political concerns vary

"I think it's a powerhouse ticket," said Baxter County Republican Committee Chairman Gary Smith, 53, of Lakeview, who says he likes McCain's ability to work across party lines, his financial conservatism and military experience.

Resident Noel Rozelle, 63, says he's concerned about terrorism more than the economy and supports McCain.

"He can handle the terrorism problem better than Obama," Rozelle said. But he worries that with a Democratic majority in Congress, nothing would get done.

Those who plan to vote for Obama say they agree with his stance on the environment, health care and public policy that affects families.

"Sen. Barack Obama and Joe Biden are willing to roll up their sleeves and try to get something started to solve the energy problem," said Nell Engeler, 70, of Mountain Home, president of the Arkansas Federation of Democratic Women's Baxter County Chapter.

The war in Iraq has a local connection. The Arkansas Army National Guard's 224th Maintenance Company mobilized in January with the 39th Infantry Brigade and is expected to return in late December or early January, said Capt. Christopher Heathscott, state public affairs officer with the Arkansas National Guard. No soldiers from the 224th have been killed or wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, Heathscott said.

As of Sept. 6, the Department of Defense reports, 63 servicemembers from Arkansas had been killed and 483 wounded in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Bratton reports for The Baxter Bulletin in Mountain Home, Ark.