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The Kerry voter: A blue night, a red-letter day

Like millions of Americans, they watched the electoral map fill in Tuesday night, praying for the right outcome. But not all prayers are answered.

By KELLEY BENHAM
Published November 4, 2004


PALM HARBOR - She staked her John Kerry signs in the yard, mailed her absentee ballot and said a prayer.

Terry Mamenta prayed every day until Tuesday. Now there is just the wait.

"You do all your praying," she says on the couch, in front of the TV. "Then you just have to have some optimism."

She saw signs that the country was waking up. In her house, in the surest sign she could engineer, her husband of 42 years cast his first Democratic vote for president this morning.

"Of course, I didn't see him go in there," she says. "But he promised me."

All day, she has told herself to stay calm. On the evening news, Rudy Giuliani said he did not doubt that terrorists will attack America again.

As the polls closed, her calm was rattled.

* * *

The first jabs were immediate. Georgia, Kentucky, West Virginia, Indiana.

Bush.

Bush.

Bush.

Bush.

Perched on the edge of her plaid couch in her satin slippers, she felt ill. She was alone with Dan Rather. Ed was off at the NCO club at MacDill. Her two children are grown.

She clutched the map from the morning paper, showing the states as shades of red and blue according to the poll of the minute. As Bush won pink North Carolina and pink Arkansas, she reminded herself that this was not a surprise. The blue states just hadn't been announced yet.

"Boy," she is saying now. "I sure hope the St. Pete Times is right."

She talks to herself. She picked up the habit when her husband was gone for long stretches in his Coast Guard career. She learned to be independent; she raised their son and daughter as Democrats while he was too far away to stop her.

They're retired now. He didn't argue when she put the Kerry signs in the yard. She's the outspoken one; he's quiet. He just smiles at the things she does.

Her neighbor, his Bush signs already taunting her, called across the street: "Hey, when are you going to take those Forrest Gump signs down?"

Still, she thought the country was waking up. She really did.

Jab. Jab. Before she knows it, a couple of hours of returns have blitzed by, and all the news is red. She doesn't even like the color red. Her living room is blue. Blue is soothing. Red is inflammatory. Red makes things look like more than they are.

On the television, Bill Plante stands in front of the White House. "Around here," he says, "the glass is always half full."

Do not get crazy like last time, she tells herself. In 2000, still enjoying the comfortable optimism of the Clinton years, she watched in shock and disbelief as Al Gore crumbled. She was sick for three days. Sat up for three nights. Stayed mad for four years.

Now every time a state is called, she marks it on her map with her marker. A big ugly B for Bush.

Florida is leaning, 55 percent Bush. She twirls her marker. "Oooh, I just don't trust Florida, I'm sorry."

Doesn't trust the Bush brother in the governor's house. Doesn't have faith in a fair count.

Kerry picks up some blue states, but Bush leads, 108-77. Then 162-112.

Dan Rather says: "George Bush is sweeping through the Northwest now like a big combine."

"Yes, he certainly is," she tells Dan Rather. "Like a little Bush fire. We're being Bushwhacked."

She was hoping to give out bottles of Heinz ketchup on Wednesday. She already bought the ketchup.

Bush takes Arkansas, leads 196-112. Dan Rather says, "Obviously, John Kerry needs a rally."

Terry has a familiar feeling. "I hope I don't have to sadly go pull my signs out and put them away."

* * *

Ed is home. He is smiling.

These Republicans. It's like they are in Stepfordland.

She tells him she's praying hard. He pats her knee.

They've been together since the Cuban Missile Crisis. She gardens; he golfs. She reads Good Housekeeping; he reads Tommy Franks. He goes to bed early; she sits up past midnight. They have never agreed on a president.

This year, with their anniversary approaching, Terry told him: "You owe me this."

Then granddaughter Brianna voted in her second-grade class and started pleading. "Oh, we've got to get those men out of the war. We've got to get them home."

So Ed cast a vote for Kerry. Terry made him swear on a Bible. Brianna smiles at him from pictures all over the room.

"Poor kid," Ed says.

Florida is crumbling, but who needs Florida? Kerry has 132. He got Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania was huge. Now, if he could get California and Ohio and . . . "Come on, give us a vote! Come on, give us Michigan! Give it to us!"

Kerry has California and 188. But Florida is leaning hard. Ohio is leaning too. "Okay, people," she says. "You're asking for four more years of this."

Ed laughs. She doesn't know how many times she put Kerry stickers on his car and he pulled them off. "Go to bed," she tells him. "Go away."

He laughs.

Bush takes Florida just after midnight. For sure.

"Four more years," Ed says.

"I'll need a bottle of tranquilizers," Terry says.

She has her chin in her hand. Numbers scrawled all over the margin of her map. Every imaginable what-if. But the tone on the television has shifted. They're talking about the president like, like he's still the president.

Larry King asks: "Can he bring this country together?"

"Never," Terry says.

Ohio looks bleaker and bleaker. She doesn't understand it, with all the jobs they lost. She just knows Kerry will take Ohio.

Ed tries to break it to her. He rubs her back.

"No. Don't tell me that," she says. "No. No. No. No."

"Don't upset yourself," he says. "It's over."

CNN is reporting a "palpable mood shift" at Bush headquarters. For all his sympathy, Ed is still smiling. Smirking maybe. Bush smirks, too. Terry can't stand the smirking.

"You're making me angry," Terry says. "Go get my signs."

"In the morning," he says. He's already thinking about his morning round of golf.

"No, not in the morning," she says. She does not want to hear from the neighbors. "Tonight."

* * *

She's alone on the couch when Kerry gets New Hampshire's four and Washington's 11. She manages to clap.

Which states are not yet called? What about those provisional ballots? They are talking about a tie. About the ballots from overseas. About postmarks and waiting 10 days. They are doing their math. She is doing hers. Her own ballot, mailed weeks ago, won't be counted for a day or two. Surely there are others like hers out there.

"They make you think it's over and then they do this, and well, it's not over yet."

Only since Bush have elections been so stressful.

"We are now projecting," Wolf Blitzer says, "that Ohio is too close to call."

Too close to call. Says it like it's official. Officially uncertain.

Sometime after 2 a.m., Terry decides that she knows all she's going to know tonight. Ohio and Iowa are up in the air. More ballots will be counted in 10 days. Sometime after Ed went to bed, she decided she still had hope. She believes in those people in Ohio. She just knows that enough of them have woken up.

She steps outside. The neighborhood is dark and quiet. The Bush supporters appear to have gone to bed. Their signs are still out. So are hers.

She looks up and down the street.

She's going to leave her Kerry signs up, she decides. At least for 10 more days.

* * *

Terry turned on the TV again at 8 a.m. She heard one of Bush's people say, "On to Fallujah."

She saw that Bush was the same Bush. Undaunted. The war was the same war. Unfinished.

She envisioned four more years of it. Then the networks announced that Kerry had conceded.

She turned the television off. She didn't want to see the speeches. Didn't want to hear another word.

When she stepped outside, her Kerry signs were gone.

Ed had done her that one favor.

- Kelley Benham can be reached at 727 893-8848 or benham@sptimes.com