25 September 2004
The Name of Cecelia Salazar's new coffee shop in the quiet lakeside town of Racine could barely be more appropriate.
Every day Ms Salazar arrives at The Daily Grind at 6.30am, having arranged for a friend to drop her two teenage children at school. She works there until 9am when she walks to the All Saints Medical Centre where she is head of translation services. At about 5pm she picks the children up from school and drives home.
"I bought this place three weeks ago as a source of extra income," she said, sitting over a cappuccino at her café in the small city, north of Chicago, on the shore of Lake Michigan. "I saw this as an opportunity to do better and get some extra money. I am a single mother and raising a family on a single income is not possible. I have had to work hard to get to this position. This is an investment for the future."
As is the case with millions of Americans, when Ms Salazar, 40, votes in November the state of the economy and, in particular, her personal economy will determine how she casts her ballot. Polls show that, other than Iraq and the related issue of national security, no issue is more important than the economy and how it affects Americans. History shows this has always been the case.
If that is true across the US, it is especially so in Wisconsin, which Al Gore won in 2000 by fewer than 6,000 votes. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate, must hold the battleground state if he is to unseat George Bush, who campaigned here yesterday.
Despite its sometimes less than flattering reputation as a stronghold of the dairy industry - people from Wisconsin are often called "cheeseheads" - this Midwest state has always enjoyed a tradition of a strong manufacturing base; a high percentage of its workforce is unionised and most are paid decent wages with benefits.
But the winds of change are blowing across the still waters of Lake Michigan. Since December 1999, Wisconsin has lost 90,000 manufacturing jobs. Opponents of Mr Bush say that since he came to office the number of unemployed in the state has risen by almost 40,000. It is equally relevant, they say, that the new jobs, mostly within the service sector, pay an average of 23 per cent less than those lost in manufacturing, and do not provide benefits such as health care. Racine's 12 per cent unemployment rate is the highest in the state.
"There is high unemployment here," said Ms Salazar, who will vote for the Democrats. "Lower income people don't have access to health care. People are counting their money."
Figures provided by the federal Bureau of Labour Statistics show that since Mr Bush assumed office the US has lost about 2.8 million manufacturing jobs. Across the the country people complain that the cost of living has increased, and that easily available jobs - such as in supermarkets and fast-food restaurants - do not pay enough.
When it comes to who voters would trust to marshal the economy, one could assume Mr Kerry would be far ahead. Indeed, Democrats have always had an advantage over Republicans on economic issues.
But recent polls, in Wisconsin and nationwide, suggest this may no longer be the case. The most recent, carried out by Gallup for USA Today, found that voters preferred Kerry over Bush on the economy by just 49 per cent to 46 per cent.
The Democrats' lead on this issue has slipped considerably in the past few months, even though there has been no overwhelmingly good economic news.
If that is a mystery, Tammy Simmons, another Racine resident, is that mystery personified. Mrs Simmons said she recently lost her factory joband was now trying to start her own business selling toys and gifts. Things were going slowly but she hoped they would pick up as Christmas approached.
Mrs Simmons, who has three grown-up children and whose husband is currently in prison, said she would vote for Mr Bush. "The economy is the most important issue for me. Jobs are not plentiful; lots of people have been laid off. I will vote for Bush, I am a Republican. I think President Bush knows the mistakes he made allowing jobs to go overseas.
"There are also some social issues I agree with Bush on. I am opposed to abortion and I am opposed to same-sex marriage. So these things back up my support for the Republicans."
Mrs Simmons may not be the conundrum she first appears and in her story may lie a crucial clue that could explain the reason Mr Kerry is failing to win over blue-collar voters.
In his recently published book, What's Wrong with Kansas, Thomas Frank explains how, over the last two decades, Republicans have used the themes of religion and family values to persuade working class voters to vote against their own economic interests. "This is not just the mystery of Kansas, this is the mystery of America," Frank said recently.
Of course there are people who support Mr Bush's economic policies; who see the record federal deficit of more than $400bn as a price worth paying; and who believe his tax cuts, which overwhelmingly benefited the richest few per cent, have helped jolt the economy.
Down by the lake front Pete Chiapetta, 43, an engineer at the Harley-Davidson motorcycle plant in Milwaukee, 25 miles to the north, was waiting to attend a divorce settlement hearing. Despite what he described as considerable payments he was having to make to his ex-wife, he was doing well and would vote for Mr Bush.
"I think he is doing everything right. The tax cuts and what have you," he said, adding that business at the plant was thriving. "I realise it's not good for everybody. [But] if people have money for Harleys then how bad can it be?"
Both Bush and Kerry are fighting to secure Wisonsin's 10 electoral votes. Mr Bush has made eight visits to the state, his most recent last night when he campaigned in Racine's Pershing Park on the shore of Lake Michigan. Mr Kerry has made a similar number of visits and chose a resort west of Milwaukee as his base for three days while he prepared for the first of the three televised debates with Mr Bush next week.
At a recent lunch, Richard Judge, the Democratic campaign organiser for Wisconsin, said the candidates' presence in the state underlined its importance. And of the issues that mattered, here and across the US, he said: "I think there is no question that the economy is an absolutely critical issue both in this state and nationally."