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Maryland's Shore still Bush territory

The Baltimore Sun

SALISBURY-- --If there is a corner of the Mid-Atlantic that can still be called Bush Country, this is it. On Maryland's Eastern Shore, solid Republican territory where Old Glory hangs from front porches and melon farms are handed down through generations, voters express grudging support for a president who they say has done the best he could under difficult circumstances.

Inside the Capital Beltway, pundits count down the days of the Bush presidency, with some weighing the merits of impeaching an unpopular leader whose power is near its nadir. Talk is of handicapping the 2008 presidential contest and setting timetables for withdrawing troops from Iraq.

But here, just a couple of hours' drive away, where the vice president feels comfortable enough to keep a vacation home, the terrain changes quickly.

Residents say they expect a long fight in the Middle East and have yet to think seriously about the next president.

The Iraq war may not be going as expected, but "I don't think it's anybody's fault," said Prana Saveikis, a 70-year-old data processing retiree who voted for Bush twice.

"The Muslim mindset is quite different. We hadn't anticipated that," he said. "I don't think we can blame the president or our politicians. The rest of the world did not see that."

In less than two weeks, the White House will deliver its latest progress report on Iraq, and is steeling for a renewed fight with congressional Democrats who have called for an end to the war. Each side is seeking evidence that will provide an advantage, positioning itself for the coming election.

But the debate is just a faint echo across the flat farmland and encroaching subdivisions here, where a sense of resignation over the war and the administration's handling of it has settled in.

"I think we need to stay in Iraq. We didn't do Japan and Germany this quickly," said Steven Bacon, 56, a former Maryland state trooper who calls himself a "George Bush fan," but gives the president a failing grade for his handling of the war. "People's patience is thin. We are in a microwave society. Everything needs to be done in a minute."

The president took a clear majority of the vote in 2004 in the congressional district that includes Wicomico County and the rest of the Eastern Shore. It is generally friendly country for members of the Bush administration, some of whom own Chesapeake Bay waterfront homes nearby - notably Vice President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

But even in this GOP stronghold, expectations are low for the final months of Bush's term. Residents see little progress in Iraq or the other issues, yet they don't foresee a successor doing any better.

"It's a bad situation. He's done what he's had to do so far," said David Boog, 64, waiting for customers at the one-chair Hebron Barber Shop, where fishing gear is sold alongside combs. "I can't see anybody coming up with alternate plans that make sense. To pull out now is not an option."

Bush "probably thinks he's doing the best he can do," said Linda Wessells, 52, a registered nurse who recently wrapped a yellow ribbon around a tree in her front yard to commemorate this year's Salisbury University commencement speaker, whose National Guard unit is heading for Iraq.

"We certainly don't want [terrorists in] Iraq to come over here," Wessells said. "You have to finish what you started."

That opinion isn't widely shared across the country right now. About six in 10 voters say they don't approve of the way Bush is handling his job, the most recent national polls show. An even greater proportion doesn't like the way things are heading in Iraq.

But on the Eastern Shore, Mike Harcum says he believes withdrawing from Iraq would be a serious mistake.

"If we don't see it through, it will be the waste of a tremendous amount of lives," said Harcum, a Hebron farmer, as he climbed into his mud-splattered pickup truck after eating with friends at the Hebron Family Restaurant.

Harcum, 44, is a Bush supporter who says he doesn't expect much progress between now and the end of the president's term. "The last year, he's not going to get anything done," he said. "Democrats are controlling too much."

He said he hasn't thought much about who might get his vote next year. "I'm looking more toward the actor," he said, a reference to Fred Thompson, the former Republican senator from Tennessee who is expected to announce his candidacy Thursday.

A short drive up Nanticoke Road, Harcum's father, Ralph Harcum, was selling melons, tomatoes and peaches at a fruit stand that is a fixture on U.S. 50, the highway that connects Easton, Cambridge, Salisbury and Ocean City along the spine of the Lower Shore.

"Other than Iraq," Bush has "done a good job," said Ralph Harcum. "His intelligence was faulty, and maybe he wasn't told the truth."

Unlike many, however, Ralph Harcum holds out some hope for the months ahead.

"He might be more effective, because he doesn't have to worry about the next election," he said. "He really is in better shape than he was six months or 12 months ago. He doesn't have to give a damn."

Even some detractors of the president - scattered across the Shore but much more prevalent in other parts of Maryland - seem to have lost the edge to their anger.

"To point a finger at him now, it's digressing," said Joseph Kitzrow, 26, a graduate student in media communications at Salisbury who also tends bar at an Italian restaurant downtown. "At this stage of the game, he's no longer the problem."

A Democrat, Kitzrow voted for John Kerry in 2004, and is leaning toward John Edwards next year.

Howard V. Keen Sr., 82, a longtime teacher and school administrator in Wicomico County, is a Democrat who voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004. He said he supports impeaching the president - a proposal sometimes floated in Washington but with almost no prospect of coming to pass.

"If there was some way to get him out of there, I think we should get him out of there," said Keen, a World War II veteran who wants a quick end to the current conflict. But in the next breath, he tempers his critique. The president - like his father before him - doesn't have "a dishonest bone" in him, Keen said.

A few blocks from Keen's home, on Patriot Drive in the Centennial Village subdivision, support for Bush remains high, and voters have little desire to change direction in Iraq.

"We don't have much of a choice but to leave them there," said Melissa Carduff, 52, a homemaker and mother of two teenage boys who calls herself a "true conservative."

"I think he is doing the right thing," she said.

Her neighbor, John Wenzel, owner of a recruitment business, said two nephews served in Iraq and returned safely.

"I tend to listen to people fighting the war. They strongly believe in the war," Wenzel said. "We had quite a few countries who stood with us and are still standing with us, so we can't be all wrong."

Wenzel said he'd give the president a grade of "B" for his handling of Iraq. "What else can he do?" Wenzel said. "He can't go on the front lines."

david.nitkin@baltsun.com

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