Emotions run high on Main St.

Politics: As the vote nears, dirty tricks get down to the grass roots.

The Home Front

Election 2004

October 19, 2004|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - The King George Inn has survived in one way or the other since the 18th century, when citizen-soldiers trained there for the Revolutionary War, but now its owner wonders whether the historic landmark can live through a thoroughly modern battle:

The 2004 election.

First came the people who tore down the Kerry-Edwards sign that owner Cliff McDermott placed on the exterior. Then came the hate mail after the avid Democrat put a new banner at the top of the restaurant, out of vandals' reach.

Things got even uglier when a local radio station played a tape, allegedly of McDermott saying Republicans were no longer welcome at his restaurant. McDermott, saying a political enemy duped the morning disc jockey with a fake tape of his voice, is angling for a legal fight with WAEB-AM, which is rattled enough by the threat that now even its outspoken DJ won't comment.

Across the rolling landscape of the politically divided Lehigh County in eastern Pennsylvania are skirmishes like this one. Individually, these stories of campaign tricks, hurt feelings, slights and accusations aren't huge, but together they show why this is shaping up as such an emotionally charged election.

In swing areas like this valley around Allentown and Bethlehem - where Al Gore won four years ago by little over 1,000 votes - it's not just party organizations that are polarized, but back yards, offices and neighborhood hangouts.

"The day I put that Kerry sign up there, I thought I'd take some kidding about it - that was it," said McDermott, who has owned the inn for 35 years and fears his business is suffering from the political feuding. "This feels like the Civil War, for crying out loud."

The emotional intensity of this election is not all negative: Many Lehigh Valley residents are volunteering for political causes, boosting voter registration rolls and mobilizing their neighbors for what some political analysts expect to be record voter turnout Nov. 2. But the emotional overdrive also explains why those passions at times have twisted into destructive territory.

Fueled by relentless campaign advertising on both sides that appeals to fears, anguish and anxiety, voters are acting out. Republicans are feeling as bruised as Democrats.

"If they can't get the Bush-Cheney sign out of someone's yard, they're spray-painting or writing obscenities on it with Magic Marker," said Dorothy Niklos, chairman of the Bush-Cheney campaign for Northampton County in the Lehigh Valley, referring to the president's critics.

"They're smashing car windows and running keys down the side of cars to destroy the paint. They're driving through yards. They're throwing animal feces and eggs at houses that have Bush-Cheney signs."

Charges of dirty play are nothing new in an election season, but many believe the underlying passions this year are hotter than ever, especially in the swing states.

"It's very hard to stay calm," said Kathy Moser, 55, a medical grant writer at Lehigh Valley Hospital in Allentown and a supporter of Sen. John Kerry. "I used to be able to stay more calm, but I think what has caused me to become what probably is an over-reactor is all the name-calling from their side. In reaction to their negativity, I've become more negative."

In her office, Moser is girded for election-year slights. She says the office bulletin board was filled with anti-Kerry cartoons, but when she put up one sketch critical of President Bush, the supervisor suddenly banned all political expression.

Some believe the events of the past four years - the 9/11 attacks, the war in Iraq, concerns over terrorism - have made voters more entrenched in their views, spoiling for a fight with those who disagree.

Such neighbor-versus-neighbor sniping was easy to find around Allentown. In recent days, the city's Democrats were talking about putting honey and itching powder on their signs to keep the opposition from stealing them, while Allentown Republicans wondered whether Democrats dumped dozens of their own signs at GOP headquarters just so they could accuse the rival party of foul play.

The Lehigh Valley is accustomed to these tensions. When Pennsylvania narrowly went for Al Gore four years ago, nowhere was the margin slimmer than Lehigh County, which with Northampton County to the east makes up the Lehigh Valley.

"Both parties covet a place like this," said Chris Borick, who runs the Institute of Public Opinion at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. He notes that both candidates have made dozens of stops in the area trying to tip the balance in this split electorate of socially conservative Reagan Democrats and liberal labor voters.

"The parties are energized here," he said. "They've seen the record of people crossing party tickets, and both sides think there are enough core voters here they can get out."

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