There's a house divided, and then there's the Johnson family.
Not long ago, George W. Bush's motorcade came rumbling into this small city. Frieda Pulkowski (nee Johnson) was ecstatic. She is, by her rapid-fire account, on the political far right, a Christian and a Republican down to her toes.
She stood on the dais that night with her father, Dennis Johnson, another proud Republican. "I had the blessing of being four feet from Bush," Frieda says. "He was so real. Not some blowing-in-the-wind, la-di-da liberal."
Frieda walked across the street afterward to look for her mom, Kathe Johnson, and younger sister Tia Johnson. They were cooped up in a pen in the dark, chanting anti-Bush slogans and waving Kerry for President signs. Frieda shakes her head.
"Everything I stand for lines up with Bush," Frieda said this week. "And everything they stand for lines up with Kerry. I don't really see how it could get more polarized, do you?"
Kathe, who was sitting next to Frieda, smiled at her daughter. "Honey, I love you, but Bush is an idiot."
There's divided, there's split in half, and there's Wisconsin. The polls show a tossup. The Republican and Democratic state chairmen explain quite cogently why the political currents are flowing their way. The streets provide no clue. Drive through Milwaukee and Beloit and Eau Claire and Menomonee Falls, and Bush-Cheney and Kerry-Edwards lawn signs alternate like silent call-and-response. (Al Gore took Wisconsin in 2000 by 5,708 votes).
Campaign television commercials piggyback four and five in a row at night, each scarier than the last. Activists run van after van to local election offices to register voters. (In the state capital of Madison -- a perennial contender for the title of most liberal-leaning college town -- Democratic officials kept offices open an extra three hours when John F. Kerry came to town Thursday -- and Republicans howled.) Along the shores of Lake Michigan, Milwaukee and Racine offer precincts rich with Democrats. Republican bastions line the Fox River Valley, which runs through Oshkosh and Appleton. Green Bay is blue-collar and unionized, and also Roman Catholic and socially conservative. So it leans Republican, maybe.
Beloit, home to the Johnson family, lies on a rolling plain just north of Illinois. It has a sausage factory and a Frito Lay plant, and about an 8 percent unemployment rate, above the state average. Unions put election troops on the street, and the city edges Democratic. The father, Dennis, was an African American serviceman who grew up a foster child. He married Kathe, a young white woman from a North Dakota family so poor that they melted snow for water in the winter. The couple is divorced but remains friendly.
Two of their three daughters live in Beloit. The third and youngest daughter, Kati Johnson, lives in New York, and she waved a placard of protest at the Republican National Convention this summer.
"I believe we'll be a safer and more humane country with Kerry, and I haven't given up convincing my father," said Tia, the 35-year-old middle daughter, who is a scientist and has two children. "I send him pages from the 9/11 commission report so he'll realize how deep the Bush family ties go to the Saudis."
Later that evening, at a restaurant in Janesville, Dennis -- a good-looking man with hair gone white -- smiles and puts his palms up. "We raised these girls to speak their minds," he said. "And God love them, that's what they do."
So what accounts for the taproot of personal politics? Kathe recalls hearing her parents worry they could not pay for a funeral for her deathly ill younger brother. She is a lifelong liberal. Dennis is a self-made man who believes the presidency is about leadership and making tough decisions. Reagan turned him Republican; he likes a strut in a leader's step.
Ask Frieda, 38, who is director of an assisted-living home, and she says conservatism just felt right. She is a born-again Christian, and she believes in low taxes and a strong military. "Let me get in the first punch," Frieda said as she sat across from her mother. "We're bleeding to death from taxes. I'm a security mom. I think Bush will keep my kids from being massacred at school or day care."
Her mother, Kathe, a slight, brown-haired 58-year-old, could not contain herself.
"Oh. My. Gawd! Bush didn't even catch bin Laden before he went off and invaded Iraq," she said. "Let me say, I'm a born-again Christian, too, but I believe that Jesus Christ was a liberal."
"Blasphemy!" Frieda replied, maybe half kidding. "Spin, it's all spin. You have to dig deeper, Mom."
To listen in on this family version of "Crossfire" is to hear a whirl of facts and figures. The daughters mine competing Web sites for facts. Tia e-mails the latest from a liberal blog to Frieda, who fires back with the best conservative rebuttal.
Tia says she favors the Democrats because she has seen too many who work hard and bring home too little money, who send their children to underfunded public schools. As for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, she has more questions than answers.
"Like a lot of Americans, I struggle with why 9/11 happened and why we haven't caught bin Laden," Tia said. "This war is ridiculous."
Back at Frieda's office, she also talks about the war, which she believes is tough going but necessary. She trusts Bush to lead the nation through. "He has that common touch," she said.
"I will agree with Frieda that Bush is common," Kathe interjected. "He's so common, he's stupid."
Frieda stared at her mother, and smiled. "I love you, Mom. But I really disrespect your views," she said.