These are uncertain times for Jill Hardek.
An elementary school teacher on leave this year to stay home with her 8-month-old son, Hardek, 34, is keeping a close eye on both the war in Iraq and the presidential campaign.
A sign to the left of the front door at Hardek's brick ranch house on Floyd Avenue in Springfield shows an American flag, a yellow ribbon and the words, "We support our troops." Hardek is steeped in military pride. Her husband is a former Marine. Her father was in the Corps, too, as were her two brothers.
One day Hardek went to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda to visit troops wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. She brought a stack of handmade get-well cards from children at Jennie Dean Elementary School in Manassas, where for 11 years she taught kindergarten through second grade. She just wanted the soldiers to know that many Americans recognize their sacrifice.
Though she leans toward voting a second time for George W. Bush, Hardek is very concerned about the path on which the Republican president has led the nation.
"This unrest in Iraq is so unsettling," she said, sitting at the kitchen table Sunday while her infant son slept in his crib. "We're trying to help the people in Iraq and Afghanistan get a new government. It's not working. I hate to see on the news every day more soldiers getting killed. I ask why. And I don't know the answer. I don't see any end to it."
But so far, what she has seen of John F. Kerry has not bolstered her confidence in the Democratic challenger. She can't specify exactly what it is, but there is something about Kerry she does not quite understand or trust.
"I don't want to use the word flaky," she said. "But there's something about him that strikes me as not right."
The victor in this year's presidential election Nov. 2 is going to have to win over voters like Hardek to carry swing districts much like the precinct in which Hardek lives.
The 415th precinct of Fairfax County, which surrounds Crestwood Elementary School, is a quintessential swing precinct. Crestwood voters have alternately favored Republicans and Democrats, though lately they have tended to vote Republican by the most narrow of margins in state and local elections.
They went for Bill Clinton in 1996. In 2000, Democrat Al Gore defeated Bush, but only by eight votes. The next year, however, the precinct went for Republican Mark L. Earley for governor over Democrat Mark R. Warner, also by an eight-vote margin. In the 2000 U.S. Senate race, voters favored Republican George Allen over Democrat Charles S. Robb, this time by only seven votes. And in last year's election for chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, voters in the precinct cast 11 more ballots for Republican Mychele B. Brickner than for the Democrat who carried the county, Gerald E. Connolly.
This year, many in the Crestwood precinct who typically vote Republican say the upcoming election is different. Though leaning toward Bush, they are considering voting for the Democrat because of their concerns over the war and the economy. But many say Kerry has so far failed to sway them to his side.
Trying to get a sense of how the precinct will vote is particularly difficult this year, in part because of a gnawing discomfort voters have with both candidates and in part because the demographics are changing so quickly.
A woman in her fifties pulling weeds outside her mother's house said that when she was growing up, almost everyone in the outside-the-Beltway neighborhood was in the military. Now, according to 2000 Census figures, only about 2 percent of the residents are in the armed forces.
About 77 percent are white, including about 14 percent who are Hispanic. Asians make up about 11 percent of the population, and African Americans about 3 percent.
It is a solidly middle-class neighborhood. Census figures show that about half the residents have household incomes between $50,000 and $100,000, with the mean income about $80,000.
Most of the homes in the neighborhood are small, brick ramblers; homes along Floyd Avenue were selling this summer between $300,000 and $400,000. Many do not have attached garages. But on almost every block, at least one homeowner is undertaking a major remodeling project, adding on an extra story.
Like many Americans, some residents have no doubts about who they favor in the election.
"We're voting for Bush," said Michelle Pluntke, as she and her husband, Oliver, took their three Boston terriers for a walk. "Bush is a good president. He's doing right by the country.
"Clinton was in office when the economy started going bad. Bush started to fix what Clinton screwed up. If we keep Bush in office for four more years, he'll be close to getting us back on track. People are already getting more jobs. The economy is growing."
Pluntke, 35, a manager for a real estate firm, considers Kerry "a phony."
"If Kerry's elected, we're doomed," she said.
Her husband, 40, who owns a painting and wallpapering company, said Kerry makes him uneasy.
"Like all politicians, he lies a lot," he said. "I can't put my finger on it. He seems to lie too much."
Others are firmly in Kerry's camp.
"We need a change," said Tony Ngo, 47, a maintenance worker who watched uneasily as more than a dozen co-workers were laid off recently.
Four years ago, Ngo didn't vote at all. This year, he says he will "definitely" vote.
"I think the economy is bad," he said. "I have a friend who worked for the same company for 15 years. She was laid off and can't find another job. They're laying people off every quarter.
"And the war in Iraq. Just like we took over the country and we couldn't find any chemical weapons. Everyone in the world thinks we should leave. We're spending a lot of money, and soldiers are dying every day. I like the Democrats. They take care of the people. The Republicans are mostly for rich people."
Basir Chand, 39, an information technician, is an immigrant from Pakistan who has not become a citizen yet. Though he cannot vote, he said he intends to volunteer for Kerry's campaign and pass out leaflets.
"I'm a die-hard Democrat," he said. "The economy's really hurting. A lot of my friends have been laid off."
A Muslim, Chand praised Bush for speeches in which he called Islam a peaceful religion and exhorted Americans not to take out their anger at the Sept. 11, 2001, attackers on all Muslims. But he said that for the first time in the 14 years he has lived in the United States, he does not feel welcome. He cited new laws and regulations under the Bush administration that he said had led to racial profiling at airports.
The presidential campaign is frustrating some voters, who complain about its negativity and its diversion to controversies over the candidates' service during the Vietnam War.
"I think both candidates are less than expected," said Bill Santer, 53, an architect, as he trimmed his hedges. "There's a lack of substance to the campaign. There's a confusion of issues, almost invented issues. We're being offered a choice between two evils."
Santer voted for Bush last election.
"I'm not sure this time," he said. Part of it is his concern over the war in Iraq. And part of it is what he called a "lack of professionalism" in the administration.
"He's not getting good views from his advisers," Santer said. "They don't look at opposing views. They have an ivory tower view -- what's right is right. Like they know what's right for us."
His wife, Laura, 49, a former teacher in a parochial school, said she has been looking at news reports for some specifics about Kerry's plans for the economy and the war. So far, she says, she has heard only vague proposals, not concrete plans.
"He talks about Vietnam so much," she said. "Nobody cares what happened 35 years ago. I want to hear about what's here and now and important to us."
Unlike her undecided husband, Laura Santer already knows she will vote for Bush.
"I feel more comfortable with Bush," she said. "I think Kerry needs to feel more aligned with the American public."
Torn between two candidates, neither of whom has won over their hearts, some undecided voters find themselves changing their minds from week to week.
"I thought I knew," said Peter Unger, 31, a public school teacher who tends to vote Republican and cast his ballot for Bush in 2000. "I thought I'd vote for George Bush. And I still may. I like his Christian values. But I like some things Kerry says. No Child Left Behind is a big issue with schoolteachers I work with. It's not popular.
"I'm torn. I watched the Democratic convention, and I got caught up in the hoopla. If the vote had been right after the nomination, I would have voted for Kerry. Then I watched the Republican convention, and I got caught up in that."
Unger will be watching the planned debates closely.
"I'll see what happens in the next 50 days," he said. "I'll continue to read about the campaigns, talk with my father and friends. Most of my friends are for Kerry."
Mike Francis, 43, moved into the Crestwood neighborhood a year ago. He had settled in Rhode Island after 22 years in the Air Force and living around the world.
But there were no jobs to be had in the state, where Francis said the economy is being kept afloat only because people from out of state are buying vacation homes there. So despite his reluctance to move "into the bull's-eye," he came to Springfield and took a job with a civilian contractor working for the State Department.
Four years ago, Francis voted for Bush, largely because he knew Colin L. Powell, whom he admires, would join the Cabinet.
This year, neither candidate has acquitted himself well in Francis's eyes. He is dubious about whether Kerry deserved his medals in Vietnam. But he thinks it is clear Bush got into the National Guard because someone influential pulled some strings, and Francis is troubled by that.
"I've flip-flopped," he said with a laugh.
Most of all, Francis is disgusted with the tenor of the campaign.
"It's amazing how ugly things have gotten," he said. "It's so dirty, it's embarrassing. I lived overseas for 17 years. I'm glad I don't have to sit there and explain this to someone in another country."
Francis expects to make up his mind when he gets an idea who each candidate would be likely to put in his cabinet. Government is not run by one man, he believes, but a team.
"I'm only voting because it's in my nature to vote," he said. "I'm probably going to regret it, either way."