In Virginia, a Longtime Republican Votes for Change

By Krissah Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 10, 2008

GLEN ALLEN, Va. -- Laura Barchi DeBusk threw on her boots and sunglasses as the school bus rounded the corner. Clutching her preschooler's hand, she crossed the street along with half a dozen other stay-at-home moms. DeBusk and her neighbors -- Republicans all -- rarely discuss politics, but days before a primary election here she decided to send a little shock through her subdivision.

"You'll be surprised to know I'm voting for Barack Obama," DeBusk, 37, announced as the school bus pulled up.

"Really?" her friend Sherry Tierney, 36, said as their first-graders hopped off the bus. "Why?"

"I feel like we need to get out of the Bush black-and-white way of thinking," DeBusk said. "I feel like McCain would also say, 'It's my way or the highway.' . . . Obama's message of inclusion and working together is what we need."

"But he's so young," Tierney replied. "I like McCain."

"He's soooo old," DeBusk fired back. "What will he be, 80, when he finishes his term?"

In the well-to-do western suburbs of Richmond, most mothers in the Twin Hickory subdivision agreed with Tierney. The Republican front-runner's military service, his moderate streak and his history of working with Democrats were attractive to the mothers. In a state where voters are allowed to participate in either primary, they planned to vote Republican on Tuesday.

DeBusk likes a lot about Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), too, but it's not enough to overcome her disenchantment with a Republican Party she thinks is adrift and uninspired, both in Virginia and nationally. She voted for President Bush twice and regrets where he has taken the country and what she thinks he has done to the good name of the United States of America. She's tired of what she sees as a lackluster string of Republicans that have run and, lately, lost in a Virginia that seems more liberal by the day. And she watched with particular dismay as Republican Sen. George Allen's 2006 reelection campaign went up in flames after he uttered a remark perceived by many as racist.

"You get so disappointed, like, these are the people we are putting up?" DeBusk said. "Like, are you kidding me? This is who we have to choose from?"

The Laura DeBusks of the country are just the kind of voters that Sen. Obama (D-Ill.) has courted -- sick of what they've been offered, tired of where things are headed and willing to try something, anything, new. Exit polls from elections across the country last week showed that Obama won the majority of independent voters. DeBusk, like many voters, worries about Obama's lack of experience, and she disagrees with him on a handful of issues, particularly his tax policies. But her desire for change is so great, she's willing to take the chance.

"Even if he doesn't do everything the way I'd like, I really feel like he can move us forward," she said.

DeBusk was raised in a conservative military family where discipline, love of country and voting Republican were shared values. She respects McCain's military service, but she'll consider him only if Hillary Rodham Clinton is the Democratic nominee. She thinks Clinton is smart and capable but fears that Republicans so dislike the New York senator that the country will be polarized.

"If it's between McCain and Clinton in the general election, then I'm voting for McCain," DeBusk said. "I can't imagine what it must have been like to be raising a preteen when Bill Clinton was in the White House."

DeBusk's daughters, Claire, 4, and Kathryn, 6, ran off to play in a creek a few feet away while the moms continued to talk politics.

Caroline Walters, 40, who has lined up behind McCain, said, "I'm worried about whether [Obama] has enough experience. He's not even a full-term senator."

Before DeBusk could tell Walters that she thinks leadership, vision and the ability to inspire the nation the way she thinks Ronald Reagan did are more important than experience, Claire started crying. DeBusk recognized the shout for "Mama."

Inside their two-story house, DeBusk gave her daughters a snack, and while the girls watched an episode of "The Berenstain Bears," she logged on to the computer for a quick news update.

Walters had mentioned that Mitt Romney had dropped out of the Republican race, so DeBusk pulled up a video of Romney and heard him say: "If I fight on in my campaign, all the way to the convention, I would forestall the launch of a national campaign and make it more likely that Senator Clinton or Obama would win. And in this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror."

"I don't get his logic," DeBusk said, and she shut down the computer.

She had never seriously considered voting for the former Massachusetts governor and business executive, although her husband, Chris, 38, who is also a registered Republican, often says: "Why can't they run the government more like a business? Be more efficient?"

Romney would have been an efficient manager, she thinks. But still, DeBusk felt he would have been "the same older white man."

"It kind of makes you wonder: Why can't the Republicans put up somebody different? We've had women and minorities serving as governors, senators and businesspeople," she said. "We keep churning out the same people over and over."

DeBusk, a petite white woman whose mother stayed home for several years to raise her and whose father was a Navy officer, said her background and social circle is probably more similar to McCain's and Romney's than to that of Obama, the son of a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas, and who was raised in Hawaii and Indonesia.

"I haven't had the most diverse life experience," said DeBusk, who grew up mostly in Annandale and went to William and Mary, where she met her husband. "I just think we need people in the presidency whose paths haven't been as greased. I think it does bring a different perspective. It makes you more empathetic."

But Mike Huckabee, the Southern preacher-turned-politician whom no one has accused of having had a "greased path," didn't appeal to DeBusk, either. She thinks the former Arkansas governor is charming, but she would not vote for a Christian conservative. "The whole religious-right part of him scares me," she said. "A lot of the religious right labels people. America is too diverse for that to be a big part of your message."

With that, DeBusk had crossed out every Republican candidate. She has been a member of the party all her adult life and longs for the old days, when her parents talked about Ronald Reagan and how he restored a sense of pride to the military after the antiwar protests of the '60s and '70s.

"That was a time when we felt really good about being Americans," DeBusk said, her feet folded onto the couch in her spacious living room. "He made you feel proud to be an American. He was very patriotic, and he was able to express that in a way that people felt it. I would love that for my children, because I think we feel badly about ourselves. Every day, you're hearing they [people in the rest of the world] hate the Americans. These people hate the Americans."

She thought Bush was wrong to invade Iraq but trusted him more than she did the Democrats to fight terrorism. Now she's among the nearly 70 percent of Americans who don't think highly of him. In the past few years, she said, the administration has given the world the impression that Americans are unyielding and undiplomatic. All that pushed her toward Obama.

She was first intrigued when he said he would meet with world leaders, even unfriendly ones. "I know we don't like Syria, and I'm sure that they are doing some things that are not nice, but we should talk to them," she said.

It was after Obama won Iowa that DeBusk started searching out his policies online. They mostly appealed to her, but "all campaign Web sites make everything sound great," she said.

Obama really won her over after his decisive victory in South Carolina, when he said, "It's not about rich versus poor, young versus old, and it is not about black versus white. It's about the past versus the future."

Right on, she thought.

Her mother and stepfather, also Republicans, became supporters of Obama in Delaware for many of the same reasons and mailed her an Obama bumper sticker.

There are no yard signs on the manicured lawns of Twin Hickory and no campaign placards in the windows of homes, but DeBusk was feeling bold the other day, inspired by a politician for the first time in who knows how long. She took the bumper sticker outside, walked to the back of her 2004 white GMC Yukon and slapped it on.

"Obama '08," it said.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company