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Column

Waiting to exhale in a political mine field

By MARLENE SOKOL
Published October 22, 2004

Whose son was inmate of the month at the Hillsborough County Jail? The bumper sticker is cracking me up.

Is the owner of this maroon Ford pickup truck a library patron? Or one of these early voters, who stand in two lines, arms folded, lips pursed?

Is it my imagination, or is everybody taking this election way too seriously? Sure, a lot is at stake, life-and-death issues at home and abroad. There's morality too, and civil liberties, and your job and mine.

Still, it's just politics.

Isn't it?

* * *

Thursday at the playground. Trying to explain the last presidential race to a woman who emigrated two years ago from Venezuela. It's all very Hollywood to her - the butterfly ballot, the chad, the recounts. An unkind thought, okay, a complete stereotype, flashes through my mind. That was no U.S. election. It was more like something you'd read about in - South America.

When she asks whom I'm voting for, I look around. I lower my voice.

I'm afraid to talk about the election in public.

An old friend responds to an e-mailed joke by accusing me of "trying to subvert the legally (Supreme Court legally) elected government of the United States!"

Another, responding to the same e-mail, sends pictures of a gala fundraiser they threw for John Kerry in Pennsylvania. See, if you live long enough your high school friends organize black-tie dinners in swing states.

At work, the election inserts itself everywhere.

A business type does not want to grant us an interview because the paper endorsed Kerry.

A social service worker casts a poverty issue as the result of our current state of government.

People are so on edge that a humor columnist gets hate mail after comparing the debates to a couple arguing about who should walk the dog. They want to analyze his thinking. "I have the thought process of a 2-year-old," he insists.

Is it my imagination?

Voter Bill Bradley doesn't think so.

He was all but run off the road, he says, because of his pro-Kerry bumper stickers.

A driver behind him in Lutz honked the horn, gave him a thumbs-down sign, then cut across three lanes of traffic to pass him.

"What part of this process means we can't agree to disagree without becoming disagreeable?" Bradley asks as he waits his turn Tuesday morning.

Behind him, voter Michele Rosales of Northdale is smarting over campaign signs she says were stolen less than 24 hours after she posted them in the ground.

"Some people at least respected me enough to put opposition signs up next to them," says the former schoolteacher.

People are watching what they say in the beauty parlor, in the grocery store.

"There is a climate," Rosales says. "I don't know how to describe it. You have to be cautious, even within families. To find common ground has been difficult."

* * *

Twenty minutes before the line starts to move, Blake Gaylord strolls up to the front door.

No question about whom he supports. He's wearing a Bush button on his crisp blue dress shirt. Tall with a movie star tan, Gaylord is a 27-year-old Bush poll watcher.

"As a veteran who spent quite a bit of time in Afghanistan and Iraq, I have extremely strong feelings and am very supportive of what's going on over there," he says.

"We have one candidate who reacted one way after the war, and I was inspired by that to do the opposite. He dishonored the dead. I want to honor the people who are making this sacrifice, and make sure it is not in vain."

This isn't politics, Gaylord insists.

"It's finishing what we started."

* * *

The line is half as long as it was on Monday, which bodes well for these next two weeks.

We're asked to write our names on white slips of paper. An election official signs them, then comes back to make sure she signed them, at least three or four times.

Florida has already been on CNN as the problem state. Broward County people voting early and having problems. Here in Tampa, the election workers seem a tad nervous.

Inside the room we snake, stand in more lines, where they ask us, again and again, to verify our addresses.

A conversation behind me: "I think if somebody votes twice in an election, they should lose their right to vote."

A pregnant woman ahead of me takes forever to read the amendments.

I'll never get used to flip-flops in October. On feet, I mean. People read newspapers. People cast nervous glances at the laptops and the touch-screen terminals.

A fellow named "Boomer" advises us how to insert the card.

And then it's time.

* * *

Outside, the maroon pickup is still in the lot.

Nearly every other sign or sticker is about politics, including the owner who proclaims he is a "charter member of the vast right-wing conspiracy."

Mothers arrive with babies in strollers, queuing up for story time. As it should be at a library.

As it will be, when all of this is over.

[Last modified October 21, 2004, 13:21:19]

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