At the Montville Polish Club, where the beers come with complimentary baskets of Cheez Doodles, two bartenders are talking.
"If you don't have the freedom to go about your daily life, then what does it matter?" Rob Dempsky, bartender No. 1, is saying. Thirty years old, he has no health insurance, makes less than $20,000 a year and could certainly use a better job. But what's most on his mind these days is "the war on terror," he says. "Unquestionably." Which is why, on Nov. 2, he says, he is going to vote for someone named Rob Simmons.
Bartender No. 2: "Iraq," says Pat Dunion, 65, of the issue most on his mind, more than even Social Security and prescription drug costs. "We got to get those guys out of there. My grandkids could end up over there if we don't." Which is why, on Nov. 2, he says, he is going to vote for someone named Jim Sullivan.
In Connecticut, where the war is everywhere now, in homes and in bars, in parades and in cemeteries, it has seeped into politics as well -- not only in the presidential race but also in the race between Simmons, the Republican incumbent in Connecticut's 2nd Congressional District, and Sullivan, the Democratic challenger.
Of the 435 congressional races to be settled on Election Day, few are more competitive than the one between Simmons and Sullivan, in which the latest poll has them only four percentage points apart. And fewer still are more focused on the war as a campaign issue than the one in which Sullivan, in a TV ad, says: "It keeps getting worse. Our troops are at risk, and our world's more dangerous, all because of bad intelligence and plain arrogance. Rob Simmons told us his experience would prevent a fiasco. It didn't."
And Simmons, in a TV ad, has the parent of a Baghdad-based soldier saying, "It took Congressman Simmons to make the Humvees safer with armor"; a veteran saying, "Congressman Simmons is concerned about our troops and our nation's security"; and another veteran saying, "Jimmy Sullivan: no experience with national security."
The politicization of war -- that's what will be happening for the next 13 days in a vast congressional district that covers 65 towns in eastern Connecticut, any of which has been touched in some way by 9/11, Afghanistan or Iraq.
In Eastford, population 1,600, a wall at the library is decorated with photographs of the 14 residents who have gone to war. "I think it's important for people to know the contribution that's being made from this tiny town," says Johanna Wolfe, the assistant town clerk.
Meanwhile, to the south, in Groton, population 40,000, Guy Smith, who runs an Army surplus store, has been selling flak jackets, hydration gear and camouflage uniforms to local soldiers heading overseas who don't feel properly equipped. "Boy. You know?" he says, shaking his head. "It doesn't look good."
Meanwhile, to the northwest, in Stafford, population 12,000, a memorial on one end of town honors two residents who were flight attendants and died on Sept. 11, 2001, and a memorial on the other end honors Army Pfc. Jeffrey Braun, a 19-year-old resident who died in Baghdad last year. "The day we found out, everyone in school was crying," says Mark Bachiochi, 16, who put the memorial for Braun together as part of an Eagle Scout project. "It just seems pointless. Why did he have to die?"
Meanwhile, everywhere, Simmons and Sullivan are campaigning just about nonstop.
War Permeates Campaign
"Clearly, in every corner of the district and everywhere in between, it's the foremost issue on everybody's minds," Sullivan, 38, says as he drives north one day. He is in a minivan that was sideswiped a few weeks before -- "no time to get it fixed," he says -- and heading away from a house where the oldest of his three young sons had been watching TV when a Simmons commercial came on, criticizing Sullivan for missing votes 23 percent of the time during one of the years he was a council member in the 1990s. "Twenty-three percent," the boy parroted as his father prepared to leave.
And that, in a nutshell, is the case Simmons is making against Sullivan: that Sullivan's experience in government -- two terms on the Norwich City Council and appointments to various utility boards -- does not qualify him to be a member of Congress, especially in these times, and especially against a 61-year-old incumbent who fought in Vietnam, was awarded two Bronze Stars, spent 10 years in the CIA, was staff director of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, was a state legislator for 10 years, and was able to bring all that experience to Congress as it became consumed by terrorism and war.
"Is he better qualified to lead on these issues than I am?" Rep. Simmons asks. "Has he served in the military? Does he have an intelligence background? I know what he'll say, but the answer is no."
Which, in a nutshell, is the case Sullivan makes against Simmons: "At a time when we needed that experience the most, when he could have said, 'We need to hit the brakes,' instead he said, 'We need to hit the gas,' " Sullivan says, referring to Simmons's conclusion, reached after a reading of classified intelligence data, that Iraq did indeed possess weapons of mass destruction. "That background failed us, and it continues to fail us to this day."
Buoyed by internal polling that he says indicates that Iraq is the issue most on voters' minds, Sullivan emphasizes this theme constantly as he moves around eastern Connecticut. He mentions it at fall festivals where he stops to shake hands. He mentions it at bake sales and tag sales and spaghetti suppers where the smell of powdered Parmesan cheese collides with the scent of fall leaves that he brings inside on his sport coat. "Retail politics" is what Sullivan's spokesman calls the type of campaigning that goes on in Connecticut. "Four people? We go," he says, which explains why Sullivan ends up in the town of Storrs at the University of Connecticut, knocking on dozens of dormitory doors.
"Hi. I'm Jim Sullivan, and I'm running for Congress," he says when one door is opened by a young man with strikingly blue hair, who looks at him somewhat quizzically.
The next day he is back at the university again, this time for a rally in the student union featuring former Vermont governor and onetime presidential candidate Howard Dean. "You do not send 135,000 Americans -- nearly 1,100 of whom are now dead -- to a foreign country to fight without telling the truth to their parents or loved ones," Dean says at one point, emphasizing that Simmons voted in favor of the war, and among the several hundred students listening is the young man with blue hair, who later tells what he heard to his roommate -- an Army reservist who spent last year fighting in Iraq.
The roommate's name is King Phengvath. He says that as he headed to Iraq, he was "gung-ho -- at first." He says that when he crossed the border, "you see all the poor kids on the side of the road. And there's like garbage everywhere. Burning garbage. It's just very, very sad." He says that as the months went by, "I was debating with my friends: Why are we here? What are we doing? Every soldier asked that question." He says the answer he eventually came to was that "we were there to be an occupying force. Not a good reason. You know?"
He says he was shot at, was mortared, helped rebuild an orphanage that was later destroyed and helped rebuild a hospital so wounded Iraqis would have a place to go. He says, "It was like chaos." He says, "We had three deaths." He says he will be voting on Nov. 2 because "it just means a lot more, now that I've gone through this," and that he wants his vote to say only one thing:
"That it was a mistake to go in."
One vote for Jim Sullivan.
Holding a 4-Point Lead
"Gung-ho," Rob Simmons is saying.
That's his motto, he says, so much so that the personalized license plate on his SUV says "Gung-ho," right above the word "Veteran." So much so that he knows gung-ho derives from the Chinese word "gungy," which he can pronounce perfectly because of his years as a CIA operative in East Asia.
CIA, Vietnam, veteran, experience: this is what Simmons emphasizes. He is a detail man who has a reputation for absorbing information. He knows his district's far corners. He knows how many people in his district died on Sept. 11 -- "12" -- and what floor the son of a neighbor was on when one of the planes hit -- "105th" -- and how many soldiers from his district have died in Iraq -- "five." He knows the latest independent poll put him only four points ahead of Sullivan, but if you factor in George W. Bush being down 19 points to John F. Kerry in his district, and consider that Bush lost big time to Al Gore in 2000, four points is pretty good for a Republican in a district that has historically supported Democrats.
But he also knows four points is four points, and so Simmons is crisscrossing eastern Connecticut, too, talking about jobs, and experience, and health care, and experience, and homeland security, and experience, while defending himself against Sullivan's suggestions that experience blew it when he came out in favor of invading Iraq.
"The same thing that persuaded everybody else," he calls the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate that concluded that "Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons" and "probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade." "How can you know better than what the National Intelligence Estimate says?" he asks, and then he dismisses the idea that his belief in the analysis makes him vulnerable to questions of judgment.
"Only to my enemies," he says. "Only to those who don't understand the business and don't want to understand the business and want to use it as a point of political attack."
The inexperienced, in other words, who, on this day, is headed in his sideswiped minivan to campaign events in the distant town of Enfield, home of Marine Staff Sgt. Phillip Jordan, one of the early casualties in Iraq. Simmons is heading out, too, in what he calls the "Gung-Ho Mobile," away from his campaign headquarters in Mystic and up just past Enfield for a rally.
The guest of honor -- Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who says to a couple of hundred people, most of them veterans: "We're in a tough struggle, my friends. We're in a tough struggle in Iraq. We're in a tough struggle in the war on terrorism. I don't have to tell you that 9/11 changed everything."
It's a somber beginning, but when McCain mentions Saddam Hussein and says, "America, the world, and Iraq is better with this guy gone," there is big applause.
Bigger applause comes when McCain says, "This war, I believe, was justified."
And then comes the biggest applause of all, when McCain pauses for breath after talking about Bush standing in the rubble of the World Trade Center with his arm around a firefighter and, in the silence, someone yells out, "Thank God for George Bush."
The woman who yells is Mary Ann Turner, who lives in Enfield and says that after the death of Jordan, she helped with a spaghetti dinner at the Elks Club that raised $30,000 for Jordan's widow. She says that when a nephew told her he was joining the Air National Guard, she told him, "That's what you do when you're an American." She says, "I feel very safe -- in this country," and that she doesn't believe people who say they feel unsafe. "What are they talking about? Of course, we're safe."
She says she was so anxious to get to the rally that she and her husband cut short a weekend away in Danbury, where they had gone to do some country two-step dancing to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. "This is no lie," she says. "We were at an intersection, if we go to the right it was one hour back, if we went left it was three hours, and I said, 'We got to go right.' "
One vote for Rob Simmons.
Telling the Electorate
"War is hell, okay?" Simmons says. He means all wars, including Vietnam, where he rigged wire cutters on the front bumper of his jeep so he wouldn't be decapitated as he drove.
And Iraq, too, where, as he describes it, America has become "a big lumbering guy" lurching around a boxing ring, groping for direction and focus. "Something needs to be done about that," he says, "and I would argue I'm in a much better position to do something than my opponent."
Town by town, then, off he goes in the Gung-Ho Mobile to tell voters exactly that.
Down in North Stonington, those voters can be found at a winery festival, where there is good wine to sample, a grape-stomping contest to be amused by, and Marcia Welsh, who says she has been sending packages of Cap'n Crunch cereal to her cousin in Iraq. "It breaks my heart that he's there," she says.
Up toward Norwich, they can be found in a hotel ballroom at the Foxwoods casino, where a few hundred people are gathered to honor Connecticut's Filipino Americans who are in Iraq. "To give them recognition and acknowledgment for their sacrifices," says Victor Dedios, who organized the event.
And just past Eastford, they are at a festival at Buell's Orchard, where Jim Sullivan has just arrived. "It's a world away from 1,066 deaths in Iraq, but it's how we create policy in this country," he says, and as the war continues in Connecticut, he moves with urgency toward the line for the hayride to shake every hand he can.