Iraq and how to bring American troops home were the issues most on the minds of people interviewed at random in southern Virginia Tuesday, including interviews at Henry's Red Hill plantation home.
Tom Trudeau and Les Tyree, visiting Red Hill, the Patrick Henry National Memorial overlooking the Staunton River Valley of south-central Virginia, were asked their opinions about the presidential race.
"We're split," Trudeau said with a chuckle. "I'll tell you what I think, and then he can tell you what he thinks."
"That's our American right," Tyree said.
Trudeau, 69, of New Kent, Va., a Richmond suburb, said he was supporting President George Bush. The retired engineer said he particularly faulted Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., for failing to release all of his military medical records. He said he questioned whether Kerry deserved the three Purple Hearts he received and was concerned Kerry had left Vietnam after little more than four months' service, which Kerry was entitled to do because of the Purple Hearts.
"He also did nothing in 17 years in Congress, and he's further left than (Sen.) Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.)," Trudeau said.
Trudeau's friend, Tyree, 63, a retired teacher from New Kent, shook his head and said he was supporting Kerry.
"I'm supporting him on current issues -- the war," he said, "and I mean the current war -- the war in Iraq."
He said he was very concerned there appears to be no exit strategy for stabilizing the country and getting U.S. troops home.
"I remember hearing 'six months and out,' then maybe longer, and not too long after that 'six years,'" he said. "I feel like after four years he should have had a better record, and (on Iraq) I believe there should have been a consensus of the United Nations rather than the United States acting unilaterally.
"The economy is part of it too -- I think things could be a lot better," Tyree said.
Tyree said he wished both candidates would focus more on the issues rather than slinging mud at each other.
"If they'd aim the campaign at the issues of the day, rather than character assassination," he said, "the incumbent has to shoulder the burden of his experience and the challenger can challenge it. For both to do character assassination is not good."
Both Trudeau and Tyree noted Patrick Henry's legacy as a fierce defender of individual rights against the power of the state. Red Hill plantation was the last home and is the burial place of Henry, often called the "Voice of the Revolution," whose speech "Give me liberty or give me death" in 1775 in Richmond helped spark the 13 colonies to independence. Henry's fight for individual rights helped bring about the Bill of Rights.
"He's probably doing a 360 (spin) in his grave," Tyree said with a laugh.
"Yes, I'm sure he's spinning in his grave," Trudeau agreed
"To be a good statesman I don't think is to malign the other guy," Tyree said, but added politics also is reaping what is sown. "Be willing to take the stone if you throw the first one," he said.
Betty Scruggs, 50, also a retired teacher from the Richmond area, said she had been a Bush supporter but was having second thoughts after reading a newspaper comparison of the two candidates' positions.
"I realized many of the policies Kerry had I believe in, but I don't like Kerry," she said. "I'm pondering now at how blatant the differences are -- abortion-not abortion; the government giving the individual Social Security money for investment, the other saying no, improve the current system. I think I'm more undecided now."
Scruggs said the major issue for her is Iraq. "People are dying there -- that has to be the major issue," she said.
Barbara Tyree, 61, also a retired teacher and Les's wife, said she was supporting Kerry.
"I feel maybe he would deal with the war differently and pull in other countries (to help)," she said.
She also said she believed Kerry would do a better job with the economy.
Earlier, at a truck stop north of Richmond, Walter Cox Jr. ate a lunch of pizza and said he definitely was going to vote for Bush -- the first time he will have voted in 20 years.
"I'm definitely going to vote for Bush," he said. "He made a few missteps regarding Iraq, but he's doing a pretty good job in other areas -- he's done a pretty good job with the economy."
"The big problem is Iraq, not going after the insurgents right at first," he said. "That's going to get worse before it gets better."
Asked what questions he wanted answered at the debates, he said: "As long as there are no questions about Vietnam -- I'm so sick of hearing about it."
Cox said he hoped the debate format allowed for spontaneous responses so viewers could know the candidates' true feelings. "I hope it is less staged than usual," he said.
Cox said as a long-haul trucker, he normally is on the road Monday through Friday.
"I signed up to vote absentee," he said. "I never realized I could vote absentee -- I thought that was just if you were out of the country or something."
Outside the truck stop food court, Tommy Wildcat sat smoking a cigarette.
"I'm voting for Kerry," he said. He said he was impressed Kerry actively served in Vietnam and then came back and stood up for his beliefs.
"He stood strong and I think that took a lot of guts," he said. "Kerry stood up and said, 'Things are wrong over there.'
"I think he'll be a good leader," said the 37-year-old Wildcat, of Tahlequah, Okla. He is a Cherokee who is a professional Native American flute player. He was on his way to Washington to help dedicate the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.
Wildcat said he most wanted to hear from the debates how the two candidates would bring America's military home from Iraq - and how soon.
"Kerry has military leadership experience, war experience, civil leadership experience being a senator. He's an intelligent person. I think he'll be great," Wildcat said.
Back at Red Hill, Jon Kulak, executive director of the Patrick Henry Memorial Foundation, said leaders from the revolutionary era would have been awed at the size of the federal government now -- and would have been appalled at the potential for abuse. He said, though, they most would want to focus the country on its basic ideals.
"I'd like to think if they could give us a message now, it would be to embrace our principles and hopes and to believe in ourselves, and not to give in to fears -- to look to our rights and our liberties, because if we give them up in the face of dangers, they won't be there when the dangers supposedly end."
(UPI Executive Editor Tobin Beck is traveling through the South and Midwest, asking a random selection of people for their views on the presidential race. This is the first in his series of stories on the road.)