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The battleground within the battleground
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Voters in Anoka County as a whole are fiercely independent. Over the past eight years, Democrat Bill Clinton, the Independence Party's Jesse Ventura and Republican George W. Bush have each won a majority of the vote in the county in different elections. (Map courtesy of State of Minnesota)
When Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry comes to Minnesota to campaign Thursday, he's going to the Anoka Hennepin Technical College in Anoka County. Why Anoka County? Most likely because it's a key swing county in what both Republicans and Democrats see as a key swing state. While Al Gore narrowly won in Minnesota four years ago, George W. Bush narrowly won in Anoka County.

Coon Rapids, Minn. — Anoka County is just north of both Hennepin and Ramsey counties. Twenty years ago, much of it was considered a sleepy, almost rural area. But things have changed. New housing developments are popping up all over the county. The number of people and the number of cars have outgrown the transportation system -- creating traffic gridlock.

Voters in the county as a whole are fiercely independent. Over the past eight years, Democrat Bill Clinton, the Independence Party's Jesse Ventura and Republican George W. Bush have each won a majority of the vote in the county in different elections.

One Anoka County neighborhood in Coon Rapids could be considered ground zero in campaign politics. It's a battleground precinct in a battleground county in a battleground state. In the 2000 election, just 14 votes separated Al Gore from George Bush in this neighborhood that runs along 121st Ave.

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Image The battleground within the battleground

Split-level and one-story ranch homes dominate most of the streets. Most driveways have an American-made car or truck on one side, and a fishing boat on the other. NASCAR bumper stickers and American flags are also popular here.

Neighborhood resident Del Tuchscherer says he doesn't know who he'll vote for in the upcoming election. Tuchscherer is a Vietnam veteran who voted for Bush four years ago, but he probably won't vote for him again because of the war in Iraq.

"I lost a lot of friends in Vietnam in a war we couldn't win. I thought that's what we were going into again and that's what we got, a war you can't win," Tuchscherer says. "He seemed to make up his mind long before the facts were in or rounded the facts to his opinion or what his desire was. At that point, I just decided that he's going no matter what."

And that's fine for Jill Gitzen, who sat on her front porch as Tuchscherer walked by. Gitzen says she supports the president. She works for Land O' Lakes and says she voted for Democrats all her life, until the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"Are they going to keep doing this to us?" Gitzen asks. "Clinton started it but he didn't finish it. I love Bill Clinton, and I'd vote for him again if he could do a third term, but he can't. But you know what? You have to fight for your country. It's a plain and simple fact. We've been doing it for 200 years. We're going to stop now after 200 years and what they did? I don't think so."

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Image John Kerry

Down the block from Gitzen's home, Kathleen Porter has her mind not only on the war in Iraq, but also on the tensions between North and South Korea. Porter's son is in the Army and currently stationed in Korea.

Porter is also undecided in the upcoming election. She says she's tired of hearing about Kerry's and Bush's military service, and would prefer to hear more about the future of U.S. troops stationed in the Middle East.

"I don't feel that arguing about each other's military background is what's pertinent to our needs right now," Porter says. "I think that we need to talk more about economy and the war."

There are others who agree with Porter's assessment. A few people say they're turned off from politics altogether and don't intend to vote. Angie Snook, a single mom who's out for a walk with her friend Lisa Geschwill and Geschwill's 4-year-old daughter, says she may not vote in the upcoming election because she doesn't like the rhetoric.

"I actually can't stand the bashing that goes back and forth between the two parties," Snook says. "I really haven't thought about it one way or another. It really angers me more than anything."

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Image President Bush

Her friend Lisa Geschwill says she intends to support Bush. While motioning to her daughter, Geschwill says Bush's policies are closer to her priorities on education, abortion and gay marriage.

"There's just a lot of things that I think the Republicans follow more for the family," Geschwill says. "I guess I push a little bit more for the family issues myself."

In another neighborhood in the precinct, Karen Plummer says she's also worried about children like Geschwill's daughter. Plummer, a retiree, has lived in this neighborhood for almost three decades. Plummer says she's voting for John Kerry because she thinks the president has harmed the country's standing in the world. She says the deficit has ballooned, and she doesn't think George Bush is focusing on the nation's future.

"I would not want to be a young person right now facing what they have to face, with the debt, with world opinion and the environment. It's a terrible thing to carry," Plummer says. "That's why I say these past four years have been bad enough with him, but thinking of another term with him -- it's going to be chaotic."

Both Republican and DFL activists in Anoka County say they aren't surprised by the wide range of opinions in this neighborhood. Charlie Weaver is a former Republican state representative from Anoka. He has also worked as public safety commissioner under Ventura and was Gov. Tim Pawlenty's chief of staff. He grew up in Anoka County and continues to live there.

"They've got great antennae," Weaver says. "Most voters in Anoka County have really good instincts about who's BS-ing them, who's not real."

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Image Charlie Weaver

Weaver says Anoka County residents care mostly about jobs, national security and hunting and fishing. He says the voters lean conservative on social issues like abortion and gay marriage. Weaver says a good candidate better be able to talk about education reform in one breath and duck hunting the next. Most importantly, he says voters look for someone who can relate to their working class background.

"If the test is ... who do you want to have a beer with? That's a good test in Anoka County for anybody," Weaver says. "George Bush wins that test."

But Melanie Kern, DFL Chair of Senate District 48, senses that voters are talking more about core Democratic issues like the economy and health care.

She says DFL leaders have been getting a good response at the Anoka County Fair when they discussed those issues with voters.

"As one of the people at our booth put it -- when someone was talking about taking their guns away -- he said, 'Well, what good are they going to be if you can't afford ammunition, or you have to pawn them because you lose your job?'"

Back in this neighborhood on 121st Ave., the issues don't always play out as expected. Take for example Janene Andersen. She says the war against terrorism is the defining issue in this election.

"I've been laid off twice in one year, and I would still like to feel safe in our country," Andersen says. "It's nice to know that there's a president who's going to protect us."

While Andersen says her mind is made up, the political campaigns say Anoka County is fertile ground for undecided and swing voters. They say they'll increase their get-out-the-vote efforts in September and October, when they expect most of those voters to start paying attention to the campaign.

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