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President Obama faces the the greatest task of his re-election campaign: making voters forget about his lacklustre debate performance two weeks ago. (Larry Downing/REUTERS)
President Obama faces the the greatest task of his re-election campaign: making voters forget about his lacklustre debate performance two weeks ago. (Larry Downing/REUTERS)

U.S. Politics

America divided, like it was 1858 Add to ...

Mention “the debate” to Dave Reed and he will tell you that a star was born, national politics were rearranged and the course of American history was forever changed.

Despite what Mitt Romney might think, the head of the LaSalle County Historical Society is not talking about the Oct. 3 showdown between President Barack Obama and Mr. Romney, an encounter that revived the Republican nominee’s campaign. Nor is Mr. Reed pre-judging Tuesday’s Obama-Romney rematch, even though it could be a game-changer.

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In Ottawa, Ill., a Rockwellesque city of 18,000 about 150 kilometres west of Chicago, the “debate” invariably refers to the marathon face-off between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas that occurred here in 1858. After all, the downtown statues of the six-foot-four Republican and diminutive Democrat testify to Ottawa’s main claim to fame.

The 1858 Ottawa encounter, which drew 12,000 outdoors despite the 32-degree heat, was the first of the seven Lincoln-Douglas debates that launched Honest Abe’s national career, won him the White House in 1860 and established the format for presidential debates to come. (Though candidates now speak for two minutes at a time, not 60.)

“It took Lincoln from being a very well known lawyer in Illinois to being a national figure,” explains Mr. Reed, 54, whose full-time job is selling potato chips. “Because of how well he took on Douglas in the debate, it got him invitations to speak across the country. It gave him a national platform that helped him two years later.”

Now, with the country about as divided as it was on the eve of the Civil War, Mr. Obama faces the greatest task of his re-election campaign: making voters forget about his lacklustre performance against Mr. Romney two weeks ago. Campaign aides promised a more aggressive President will turn up to challenge the Republican nominee’s newly moderate positions in the town-hall-style debate set to take place on Long Island, N.Y.

Mr. Reed, however, will not be among those cheering on Illinois’s native son on Tuesday. Indeed, in Ottawa, where Republican roots run deep and a young Lincoln practised law in the 1840s, there are few signs of enthusiasm for the President. Instead, the front page of the local newspaper bears a story on Mr. Romney's local ties, as tenuous as they are (his great-great grandfather once scouted the area to build a Mormon temple.)

“The problem I have with Obama is that he had an opportunity when he came in, with Democrats holding the Senate, House [of Representatives] and the White House, to do so much. The economy was going off a cliff and all he wanted to do was health care,” says Mr. Reed. “That really turned me off. I don’t think his priorities were right.”

Retired casino worker Stan Dziedzic, 70, begrudges the Obama administration’s move to deny cost-of-living increases in 2010 and 2011 for pensioners receiving Social Security benefits. (They got a 3.6 per cent increase this election year, however.)

“I am going to get Obama out any which way I can,” insists Mr. Dziedzic, a past president of the historical society.

With greater Chicago and its Democratic core accounting for about two-thirds of Illinois’ population, Mr. Obama is expected to easily win his home state next month, albeit by much less than the 25-percentage-point margin he did in 2008.

The real contest in Illinois is for a majority of the state’s 18 House seats, down from 19 in the current Congress. Republicans swept 11 of the seats in the Tea Party wave of 2010. But Democrats last year used their majority in the state legislature to push through new district boundaries aimed at helping their party regain a majority of the House seats.

“We have some really weird-shaped districts,” Mr. Reed offers.

“Can you say gerrymandering?” adds Mr. Dziedzic.

The main result of the redistricting – other than the fact that no one seems to know what district they now live in – has been to throw at least of six of the state’s seats into play. While Democrats had at first been favoured, most of the races have tightened.

One reason is Democratic Governor Pat Quinn’s anemic popularity. Republican governors elected in 2010 in Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio have pushed through harsh anti-union reforms to tackle their budget deficits. But Mr. Quinn, who squeezed through in 2010, instead raised the state income tax by 67 per cent to deal with a massive deficit and public-sector pension liability, neither of which has been solved.

“Taxes are killing everybody,” says Mr. Reed. “I sell Doritos and Ruffles for a living. That is the first thing people cut out of their grocery bill when money is tight.”

Follow on Twitter: @konradyakabuski

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