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At the Ozark Cafe, the Coffee is Hot, But Rural Republicans, Democrats Lukewarm on Candidates

Coffee is in abundance at the Ozark Cafe in West Plains, Missouri, where a variety of political views abound among regulars.

On Wednesday morning, after the second presidential debate, the wood-paneled dining hall in the Ozark Café is beginning to fill up. The smell of eggs, sausage and coffee percolate through the air.  This restaurant has only been here for four years, but it took its name from the legendary Ozark Café, which was on the West Plains town square for 60 consecutive years.

As politely as possible, I interrupt the breakfast of Phillip Wade, who runs an insurance business here.  Although he says he tends to lean Democrat, he’s still undecided this time around. He says he’s extremely pleased with President Barack Obama’s record on foreign affairs…but, he says, he’s worried about the economy, and debt.

“The economy is probably something we’re just gonna have to work ourselves out of. We’re probably headed for an economy like Japan’s had for the next 15 years, 10 years, until all the bad credit and everything washes out,” he said.

“I like the idea that he’s ending the wars and getting our troops home. That’s important to me,” he said.

Wade added that he hears from seniors who are worried about the health care overhaul, commonly referred to as “Obamacare.”

“I think ‘Obamacare’ is misunderstood. There are a lot of positive things in ‘Obamacare.’  And the media, and everybody’s trying to put their spin on it. But there are a lot of good things in it,” Wade said.

Another breakfast patron, Chad Gleghorn, is a young pharmacist for Wal-Mart in West Plains. He’s eating at a table with two other young men. 

“I watched a little bit of the debate last night. It was the first debate I watched so far.  To me, I kind of saw that Obama won it a little bit better; he seemed to have his facts than Romney did. But I am a true Republican, so when it comes time to vote, I am going to vote on the Republican ticket,” Gleghorn said.

I ask him which issues are most important to him in this election.

“I think, living in southern Missouri, the big thing is gun control. I’m a big hunter, and a big outdoorsman. And that’s important.  It seems like in this situation, Romney, I think he has the NRA vote.  So that’s going to be a big thing that I look at,” Gleghorn said.

The National Rifle Association’s political action committee has endorsed the Romney-Ryan ticket.

Sitting at a nearby table is attorney Lyndell Beard. He says he knows of several people who are concerned about what’s going to happen with taxes next year, and with health care. Those people aren’t able to calculate for the future, he says, so they’re waiting until after the election to see how—and whether—they’ll spend money.

“Now, whether that money will break loose and work its way into the economy or not—depending on who’s elected, depending on whether Obama’s elected—I don’t know. But that’s a real thing here in a small community like West Plains. And that concerns me that, if that’s the sentiment here, what is that sentiment out in larger, urban environments, and the impact it has on jobs, and job losses,” Beard said.

Beard says he grew up a Democrat in Arkansas, but became a supporter of the Republican Party during the Reagan years. However, he’s not pleased with what he calls “Neo-conservatives” within the party who try to interject their opinions on how others should live their lives.  So, now he describes himself as more of a "conservative independent."

Beard says he has full confidence that Republican candidate Mitt Romney could restore the economy, but he still worries about that choice, too.

“So much of what Governor Romney has done in the past seems to have focused upon the slimming down of businesses, and the export of jobs overseas.   And I would refer to Romney as a globalist, and Obama, for lack of a better word to fit, he seems to be close to a socialist, focusing on government programs,” Beard said.

And then, I come upon a table of seniors who inform me proudly that they’re the alumni of the class of 1955 from West Plains High School. They meet here once a month.  Bill Summers said the main issues he’s concerned about are education and jobs.

“And to get jobs, they’re going to have to stop a lot of imports, and get the jobs back in this country.  And to get the jobs back in this country would be to stop the imports.  I think they need to help the common person find jobs,” Summers said.

A new, bi-partisan survey of rural voters in nine battleground states showed 59 percent support Romney, and 37 percent were hoping to reelect Mr. Obama.  That’s a full 10 percentage points below the actual rural vote for the president in those states in 2008.

That survey was released this week, and was sponsored by the Center for Rural Strategies, a Kentucky advocacy group, and funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

For KSMU News, I’m Jennifer Davidson.