Centre County, Pennsylvania, as its name implies, is located in the dead center of this diverse heartland state in the northeastern United States. It's home to liberal-leaning State College, as well as large numbers of older retirees and working poor. This once-prosperous manufacturing region offers a cross section of the attitudes and concerns of American voters as the November 4 presidential election nears. VOA's Adam Phillips was there.
It's Saturday morning at the Honey Creek Inn, a cozy "family-style" restaurant in Reedsville, Pennsylvania, where Centre County locals typically meet for coffee, eggs and conversation. These days, those conversations are heavily focused on the upcoming presidential election.
Centre County, Pennsylvania, is a swing county in a swing state, and Senator Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee, and Senator John McCain, his Republican rival, have been campaigning hard to win over the critical bloc of undecided voters here.
But Dave, a retired machinist who remembers when this area was humming with mills and factories, now long shut, has made his decision not to vote for anyone.
"They're all crooks!" he says. "Ain't no one going to help the common person. The middle class doesn't get any help. But people out there are struggling."
Many residents here believe that a lot of that struggling has been caused by America's free-trade policy. Centre County has seen almost all of its factories shuttered or relocated over the past decade or so. The last major one, a brass fittings business, closed its doors this year.
"I want a president who is going to put an end to giving bonuses to a company that outsources jobs outside of the United States," says Pam, an office clerk. "We need to keep the jobs here."
When asked whether either of the candidates is paying attention to that issue, she says, without conviction, "Barack promises to."
McCain's Foreign Policy Experience, Obama's Community Activism Attract Supporters
As in many areas of rural America, a large proportion of Centre County residents are Bible-toting Christians like Al. He believes Barack Obama is a Muslim, even though Obama, who is Christian, has repeatedly denied being a Muslim.
"And I believe if Obama is elected, one of the first things he's gonna do is separate us from Israel," Al says with a grimace. "And that'll be the downfall of the United States."
National security is a top priority for Vicky, who also supports McCain.
"I never want to see another attack on our country again, and I think John McCain would definitely be the person for that because of his military background," she says.
It is Obama's roots in community organizing rather than international politics that have inspired Joanne, of State College, Pennsylvania - a liberal university town - to work for his campaign.
"I like his philosophy of the importance of local politics and people being involved in their communities," she says.
When asked whether Centre County residents outside State College take that view, she says she is not sure, adding, "I do think that more than anything, people are interested in seeing change and no more [President George W.] Bush."
Support Wanes for Bush, Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan
Indeed, restaurant owner Betty Lawhead says that while many of her patrons voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004, she believes most would be voting for Barack Obama on Election Day 2008.
"… Except for the fact that he's black. That's too bad, but that's the way it is," she says. "We've never had a lot of black people in this area. It's kind of a touchy subject."
Many people in Centre County supported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and have watched as their children have enlisted to fight. But seven years and 100s of billions of dollars in war costs later, many have changed their mind. Betty Lawhead, for her part, was against the war from the start, but her opposition has only intensified over time.
"I am absolutely furious about it, and I think a lot of people in this area are, too. We've had some people horribly wounded that come back here. It's terrible!" she says with an audible sob.
"Sissy" works two low-wage cleaning jobs to support her two children and grandchild. She believes, mistakenly, that former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein played a role in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and she thinks that justified the U.S. invasion of Iraq in early 2003.
"At first I felt 'Yeah, get in there [and] support them.' But now that we're stuck there and nothing is really changing that much," Sissy says. "That's money out of our pockets that we could be helping our own homeless, our own people that are going hungry, and people that can't afford health care."
Middle-Class Voters Concerned About Financial Stability, Retirement
Such social concerns are fueling a lot of anger at the recent $700 billion federal bailout of the American financial industry. The huge commitment of taxpayer dollars is likely to leave little surplus for the ambitious health care plan Barack Obama hopes to put in place if elected. To William, an elderly retiree, that's an outrage.
"Why should we save the banks?" he asks. "As far as I'm concerned, to hell with them!"
These days, Joe, a truck driver, and his wife Kathy are most concerned about the solvency of the federally funded retirement system known as Social Security.
"I am one of the Baby Boomers that are going to retire in 10 years, and I am not even sure I am going to have Social Security when I retire," Joe says.
He wants reassurance "so that my kids, when they retire, will have what my father had before me and my grandfather had."
Waitress Kelley Coburn, a single mom who doubles as a dental assistant, already works seven days a week and is aware that both McCain and Obama have economic recovery plans.
"… But I'll believe it when I see it," she says. "I want to see action the day they go into office."
She believes many politicians are out of touch with the values and experiences of normal Americans like herself and the customers for whom she pours coffee.
"I am an honest person, and I want our politicians to be honest and hardworking also,
she says. "I want to see results!"
Coburn and other residents of this corner of Pennsylvania will be after results by casting their ballots on November 4th. Local election board officials are preparing for the largest voter turnout in the region's history.