"Hey -- you're Joe the Plumber! I'm Joe the Plumber! We're all Joe the Plumber!" A burly man in a black T shirt waved a plunger at my husband Peter and me, as we edged in line toward security for John McCain's outdoor rally in Woodbridge, Virginia, on Saturday afternoon.
"We're all Mary the Nurse! And we're Sam the Builder! And we're all Tom the Electrician!" The man shook the newfound icon of Republican politics -- a toilet plunger -- over our heads.
I couldn't believe my luck. Almost every Saturday morning I drive from Washington D.C. to Woodbridge, Virginia to canvass for the Obama campaign. Yesterday when I learned that John McCain would be speaking down the road, the organizers in the Obama office were dismayed to hear I was very excited to go.
"We'll organize a protest," one suggested.
"Protest what? I want to go in and see the crowd and talk to them."
If I hadn't been one of their most frequent volunteers, the staff in that office might have written me off as a bit of a nut. But I like venturing out of my comfort zone, and wanted to see up close if the hatred and hooliganism that McCain-Palin have drawn recently, would surface here; if the mere presence of an Obamista would provoke anyone.
In this area, I hadn't encountered any real hostility. Going door to door, voting preferences were mixed. The richer the household, the greater the chance I'd find a Republican inside. Over the past few weeks, I noticed more working people leaning toward Obama. Among the undecideds, people expressed confusion about taxes and health policy, while some military people felt concerned about voting Democrat for the first time. Sometimes religion and biology reared its two-pronged head.
"It's the pro-life issue," a young male hospital worker told me. A father of two toddlers, he put it this way: "We're pro-life so we don't have a choice."
I'm gobsmacked when someone tells me they have no choice in an American election. Only in places where people vote at the end of a gun barrel do they have no choice.
"Let's lop off the pro-life debate," I always suggest, "and look at everyday matters like your paycheck or health insurance, or college loans; and the fact that house values here have dropped 40%. If you lop off the pro-life debate - who would you vote for?"
The answer is increasingly the same: "Probably Obama."
But those veering from McCain to Obama weren't the ones attending the rally. These people comprised the inner circle, the hard core McCainites who view this election as one which puts the dream of earning wealth in America at stake; who view the government as an enemy of their dream. The names of people here don't appear on my Obama canvassing lists.
Inching forward in a line of people predominantly dressed in red -- paradoxically the favored color of Hugo Chavez -- I struck up a conversation with a woman born in Germany, whose husband is in Iraq.
"This is one election where you're forced to take a stand," she said. Beside her stood her 17-year-old daughter, a senior in high school and nine months pregnant.
"If you can make it, you have to take it," the teenager told me. "My mom will take care of my baby while I finish school. Then I want to study criminology."
Her mother told a different story. "I didn't want her to go through with it. We discussed all the options including adoption, but the father didn't want that -- even though we're moving to California soon." As we chatted about the candidates, she hinted that Sarah Palin has helped improve the image of teenage pregnancy. "It's more out in the open now."
"My baby's a girl and I'm naming her London," the teenager said.
When we entered the area for McCain's speech, I was astonished at the size of the space: very small, with one set of covered bleachers and standing room all around. A reporter in the news area estimated a crowd of 5,000 for me. During the warm up speeches I introduced myself to random people asking why they were voting for McCain. I always made it clear that I'm an Obama supporter. At first people looked shocked that I showed up at the rally, as if a heathen had landed on sacred terrain.
"We're all Americans and McCain is a celebrity," I'd say. "He's in the news every day so why wouldn't I want to be here?" People's reasons for disliking Obama varied.
"Because we don't want socialism!" said one British woman who claimed the National Health Service ruined her life twenty years ago.
"Because he'll raise our taxes," said a small business owner, who either didn't hear or didn't believe that Obama is not raising taxes for anyone earning under $250,000.
A man said, "We don't want to spread the wealth around! What would be our incentive to get rich?"
One waxy-blond 60 year old scowled with contempt when I mentioned my volunteer work for the Obama campaign. "He doesn't love our country. Look at what Michelle said about her patriotism. He's no patriot. You can't trust this man, I am sure about that."
"It's Reverend Wright that made up my mind," her husband said.
"But how would you feel if you were born poor and black in America? What do you think that experience would be like? Wouldn't you maybe want to retreat once a week into your own church?"
"That's the problem," the husband said, grinding his jaw. "Obama speaks like a victim. He's weak and has that victim mentality. We need an elite who doesn't apologise to other leaders saying, 'Oh, I know we did this wrong and we did that wrong.' I have two sons in Iraq and I want a president who can POW; who can make things fly."
"We're real Americans," added the wife. "We love this country."
"But don't you think Obama loves this country too? Think where he came from. How could he not love this country, knowing where he came from?"
"That's exactly the problem. He identifies with the victims; people who aren't getting their own act together and making things work. I don't want any handouts."
"Well maybe people aren't created equal," I said. I told the man about my brother who has a low IQ but manages to keep a menial job. "He has no health insurance but since my father was a Republican, my brother votes against his interests in every election. What about people like him?" The man gave it a moment of thought, amused to hear I come from Republican stock. He understood my point; but I wasn't going to change his mind.
Leaving on a friendly note, I listened to McCain's speech, which opened with buoyant admiration for Sarah Palin. "I'm so proud of her!" he beamed as the crowd roared. I tried to imagine Barack Obama saying, "I'm so proud of Joe Biden! Or George Bush saying, "I'm so proud of Dick Cheney!" McCain went on to articulate his themes, repeating his favorite mantra that came up 25 times in his RNC address, 'Fight! Fight! Fight!'
When the speech ended and we started to file out, I made my way over to a young black guy who had been holding up a picture of Obama with a red slash across his face.
"Why are you voting for McCain?" I asked. "Why not Obama?" By now word had gotten round that an Obama supporter was nearby.
"Because I have a degree in Business and Russian Studies so that should answer your question!"
It didn't. I repeated my question.
"Because Obama is for socialism!"
"They've just socialized the banks here!" I said. "And public schools are free. Isn't that socialism?"
"I'm writing a book about Albania and Albania was a total failure until they took away socialism and put on a 10% tax right across the board."
"No one is saying America wants to be Albania," I said. One young mother pushing a stroller sneered, "you're so naive!" A man in a baggy red shirt started hammering me that Obama is a socialist, while I started hammering back that Obama will have his pick of the best minds in America, conservative and liberal, lining up to work for him. Clearly these people were very worried that their businesses would suffer if Obama wins. They're getting John McCain's message loud and clear, that Obama is going to raise their taxes even though that's not the case.
I asked the girl who called me naive how many leaders in the world would be proud to be photographed beside John McCain; and then I answered my own question. "None! I've lived outside this country for 20 years and I can guarantee you no one will be proud to do business with America if McCain wins."
"Well I'm British and I am against socialism," a blond teenage girl piped in. She had an American accent.
"It doesn't work!" said her mother, who gripped the fist of her partner, a black man, who seemed to be propping her up, helping her walk. "We're against socialism. That's why we're for McCain."
"Well I'm British too!" I surprised everyone. "I lived in England for 16 years and their doctors are just as good as ours. It's our method of delivery that's so screwed up."
By now the battle lines were drawn. The anti-Albania man started shouting, "No socialism! No socialism!" The crowd chimed in, "No socialism! No socialism!" I shook the man's hand and said goodbye, then walked off in another direction, letting the chants fan around me in the chill, sunny air. I was outside my comfort zone and got what I came for.