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July 22, 2014

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ELECTION 2008:

Where the economy isn’t No. 1

In prosperous mining town, voters can afford to take the Iraq war, social issues into account

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Chris Morris

VOTE TODAY: Polls open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

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Perhaps it is fitting that in a place called Battle Mountain, war is still very much on the minds of voters as they head to the polls.

This conservative northern gold mining town of 3,000 about halfway between Elko and Winnemucca isn’t near a military base. But with the price of gold high and jobs still abundant, conversations with voters Sunday indicated many people here do not feel hit by the economic downturn that has wreaked havoc on much of the country.

In other words, Battle Mountain provides a glimpse of what this election might have looked like had Wall Street not melted down in September. It might have been a referendum on the war in Iraq and a battle for “values voters,” with some focus on local concerns.

Voters here say they are more worried by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and social issues such as abortion, guns and gay marriage, along with education and environmental regulation of mining, which they fear could ruin the good thing they’ve got going here.

“We’re insulated from the impact of the recession,” said Mike Johnson, a foreman at a local mine. “People are buying new pickups every other day.”

David Chavez, for example, is fed up with the Bush administration because he doesn’t think it has done enough to protect soldiers in Iraq. He said he is considering voting for Obama but he’s having second thoughts because he is a religious Catholic and strongly against abortion and gay marriage.

“If Obama wants to have choice for abortion then I’m not going to vote for him,” Chavez, 46, said while picking up a movie at the local video store.

Chavez is not concerned about his well-paying mining job.

That’s what’s different here.

Nationally, jobs and the economy have become the top concern of voters, followed by tax policy and government spending. In polls, the Iraq war is cited by only about 10 percent of voters as a top concern. Just 8 percent choose social issues such as guns or abortion.

Democrats have courted this part of Nevada seriously for the first time in ages. They face an uphill battle even to significantly narrow the gap with Republicans.

Beating John Kerry, Bush received 78 percent of the vote four years ago in Lander County, which encompasses Battle Mountain, and the region remains hostile territory for Democrats. One Obama volunteer who recently canvassed in Battle Mountain said an old man attached to an oxygen tank chased him down the block.

But while the vast majority of people interviewed here said they would vote for McCain, many offered nuanced evaluations.

For Sam Griffith, out for dinner with his wife, Amelia, at El Aguila Real Mexican restaurant, the war is the biggest concern. He voted for McCain because he doesn’t support Obama’s plan to remove troops from Iraq.

“I don’t want to see everyone pull out, and then in 10 years we’re just back in there,” said Griffith, 38.

His wife disagrees. She is voting for Obama.

“I just look at it as a mom,” said Amelia Griffith, 46. “I want to see all of them come home.”

The Griffiths moved to Battle Mountain more than a decade ago because of mining. Now she works at a casino and he works in landfill for the county.

“I don’t think the economy is as bad as everyone wants to believe it is,” Sam Griffith said, consuming a plate of quesadillas.

People here still mention with disgust a Washington Post article seven years ago that labeled Battle Mountain “the armpit of America” after a reporter found the town ugly and its people unfriendly.

When the reporter visited, gold prices were down and Battle Mountain was struggling.

For a while, the town turned the stigma into an ironic joke, with a festival sponsored by Old Spice deodorant.

Now downtown is less rundown but still sleepy, with a couple of casinos, a few restaurants, a video store, an antique shop and a coffee shop that doubles as a Mexican tienda. There’s still not much for kids to do here, people say.

The economy may be better, but national concerns are creeping in.

Angie Peasnall was out with her friend Trina Dunn for a drink at the Owl Club casino Sunday night. Dunn, 34, was back in town to visit after recently moving to Oregon. She’s having a terrible time finding a job there, even at a fast-food restaurant.

In Battle Mountain, Peasnall, 39, makes $75,000 a year plus health benefits as a mine worker. But she’s worried about her retirement fund losing value, and sending her two sons to college. She’s thinking about voting for Obama because she’s disgusted with the direction of the country and likes his education plan.

But like a lot of people here, she worries Democratic policies will be bad for mining and will ruin the town’s good fortunes.

Then again, her friend’s visit is a reminder to Peasnall that Battle Mountain is at once part of and separate from the rest of the country. And that’s confusing.

“The country is hurting,” Peasnall said. “It’s scary.”

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