Selling the candidates

The Baltimore Sun

Bonnie McCartney just had to get her picture taken next to the life-sized cut-out of John McCain on Main Street in Annapolis. Her best friend, Jan Deaver, took the photo - even though Deaver is a die-hard supporter of Barack Obama.

The two women said their differences in politics have not spoiled their 38-year friendship. Still, Deaver couldn't resist needling McCartney.

"We know Obama will make a better future for our children," she said with a wide smile.

McCartney countered that McCain has a better handle on how to turn the economy around, and said she is concerned about what awaits their grandchildren.

"I want them to have the good life I had. I don't think they will with Obama," the Harford County woman said.

The exchange took place this week outside America!, a store that, like many tourist shops in downtown Annapolis' Main Street, sells the obligatory Maryland hats, crab key chains and U.S. Naval Academy T-shirts. But America also sells flags, presidential history books and other politically themed gifts.

Merchandise for both Obama, the Democratic candidate, and McCain, the Republican contender, usually shares a table at the front of the store. And, with Election Day drawing near, the shop has become a site for good-natured political give-and-take.

Store employee Michael Mussenden says that when the debate starts to get too heated, he makes a joke and tries to calm things down.

"We're not trying to suppress intelligent discussion," he said. "We want to suppress the 4-year-old mentality of throwing blocks at each other."

Some customers are drawn by curiosity. They smile and point at the Obama magnets and the McCain pens and pencils. Others come in with a mission.

"Where are the Obama T-shirts?" asked Tara Ream of Annapolis.

Mussenden led her to the racks, where she looked over a light-green Obama shirt. She stood next to Anita Wenke, who was trying figure out if any of the pink shirts promoting Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin would fit. Wenke, of Kansas City, Mo., looked at Mussenden and rolled her eyes.

"When I heard that woman say she was looking for Obama T-shirts, my stomach just turned," she whispered after she moved several feet away.

The pink Palin shirt would look fine if she just hemmed the bottom, Wenke later said. Palin "doesn't care about Democrats or Republicans, she just wants to do the best for us," Wenke said.

Her husband, Carl, bought a blue McCain shirt.

Ream, who was buying a birthday gift for a friend in Michigan, decided to pass on the T-shirt. Instead, she bought Obama sticky notes, Obama playing cards, two Obama bumper stickers, two Obama pins and one Obama shot glass.

"It bothers me that there isn't more Obama stuff," she told Mussenden, who explained that the store carries only three styles of Obama shirts.

America!, a Lorton, Va.-based chain, has been selling more Obama merchandise, apparently because most of its stores are located in airports and train stations in heavily Democratic Maryland, Washington and northern Virginia.

As of late July, sales throughout the chain were 10-to-1 in favor of Obama, Annapolis store manager Kathie Eckman said.

Jane Haruska, who lives in New York City, bought 10 Obama campaign pins at the Annapolis store. She said so many people comment on the Obama pin she wears that she plans to hand one out the next time someone asks her where she bought hers.

"I love him, and if we don't get him, I'm going to move to New Zealand," Haruska said.

One night a drunken woman grabbed the Obama cut-out and took off down the street with it, Mussenden said. Store employees caught up with her when she stopped to catch her breath, he said.

After the Republican National Convention, the ratio of Obama-to-McCain sales moved closer to 5-to-1, said Donna Tsitsikaos, vice president of America!"

The Annapolis store - in a county where a majority voted to re-elect President Bush four years ago - is one of the chain's top sellers of McCain merchandise. And sales picked up when he selected Palin as his running mate, Eckman said.

She asked for an overnight delivery of 200 McCain pins last Friday, the day before he visited his alma mater, the U.S. Naval Academy, for his 50th class reunion. The store sold half the pins during that weekend.

"McCain supporters are finally coming out," Mussenden said.

Since a delivery last week, the store sold eight of the 12 Palin mugs it received for $8.99 each. Notably absent is virtually anything featuring the Democratic vice presidential contender, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden. His face can be seen on a few Obama pins.

Heather Mason of Corpus Christi, Texas, was in Annapolis this week for a baby shower. She bought Obama and McCain figurines with bendable arms and hips that swivel.

"We're a split household," said Mason, who is the regional leader for Blue Star Families for Obama back in Texas.

Her husband, a Naval Academy graduate, deployed to Bahrain three months ago. She joked about his expected absentee ballot vote for McCain.

"Hopefully, it will get lost in the mail," Mason said.

Employees at the store stand clear of taking sides.

"I just tell people that I'm voting for Paris Hilton," Eckman said.

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