Hard times in the Lone Star state, but Republicans are sticking to their guns


In Liberty Hill, Bush is a 'good president', Palin 'knows how it is' - and Obama hasn't a chance

CHARLES CANADY can dutifully recite the common wisdom that Texas is being spared the worst of his country's troubles, but the doubt in his voice says it doesn't exactly feel that way. Sitting in Liberty Hill's improbably named City Hall, a corrugated steel cabin with room for 50 people, the quietly spoken businessman and part-time mayor says these are tough times for the local mechanic's shop which his family has run since the 1920s.

Business now consists mostly of tow-ins and essential work; routine maintenance has fallen off. Just this morning, a plumber came into the shop and said his company was planning to lay off about 100 people before Christmas. Even the local cemetery is not immune to the vagaries of the market: the association that runs it recently learned that the funds it has been saving since the 1950s might be lost entirely.

"After the election, I hope it changes, but you've got that plumber who came in today - he's got a young family, and he'll probably be one of the ones that's laid off," says Canady. "People are scared."

Liberty Hill may be a city, but its languid, small-town feel mocks the official designation. Many of its young people leave after finishing school, but an ageing population has been offset in the past decade by the arrival of young families seeking relief from the stifling traffic of Austin, about 30 miles to the south. Almost 90 per cent of its 1,400 people are white, and if libertarianism were a state, this could be its capital. One local Democratic politician is an anti-abortion, pro-gun "freedom fighter", who doesn't like his party's stance on immigration or gay rights.

At the Dahlia Cafe, one of the most popular home cookin' restaurants in town, Ben Cousins and his wife Emily step out into the hot afternoon sun, their youngest child playing on the lawn out the back.

Ben, a local fireman in boots and a cowboy hat, agrees that there's no mistaking the appeal of change as the mantra du jour. That was why he toyed with the idea of siding with Obama, he says, until McCain's experience won out when he voted last week.

Emily is colder still on Obama, but while neither of them believes his colour will turn great numbers against him, they agree that his "Muslim background" will.

"I think that'll have more of an effect than the fact that he's black. I'd like to think that," says Ben. "I think it should, in this Christian nation." But he's not Muslim, and why would it matter if he was? "He has family members that are Muslim. Just his family history says a lot," Emily adds. "He went to a Christian church," says Ben. "But I don't know what's in his heart. That's not for me to say - that's for God to decide."

For Emily, McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate sealed it. "Simple fact that she's a mom and she knows how it is. I've got kids, I'm the fourth of eight kids. She knows what it's like to have to work, to have family, the emotional stress, the physical stress, the mental stress of [being an] everyday wife, a mother, and a soon-to-be grandmother at 40-something."

In San Francisco today, voters will be asked to decide on a proposition to name a city sewage plant after George W Bush. It may well be carried. But here in Williamson County, where two-thirds of voters opted for Bush over John Kerry four years ago, criticism is harder to come by.

"The economic thing is not a one-person problem, where George Bush had anything personally to do with it," says Jack Bevers, who sells construction hardware in Liberty Hill. He feels Bush will be remembered as a good president dealt a difficult hand, "and the country sure did well while he was in. Here toward the end it kind of faded off on him, but for eight years he did real well."

Back in the Dahlia Cafe, three middle-aged women debate the election. "Not as good as we used to" is how Cheryl Winget explains local feelings towards Bush, but for her friend Cindy Fortner, that disappointment is down to the president's failure to hold his conservative ground. "John McCain is too Democratic for me, even though he calls himself a Republican," she says. "The reason he's called a maverick is because he voted along the Democratic line. He's a Democrat wearing a Republican coat. But I like Sarah Palin."

"She scares me!" Cheryl says, describing herself as a long-time Republican voter who may be persuaded to break the pattern.

All three women agree that many in Liberty Hill show more interest in the state elections, but Jack Harkrider, a local teacher, is not one of them. "I'm not sure that people really understand how big this election is. This is a time where we're going to find out where the heart and soul of America is," he says.

On this, Harkrider professes to be an optimist, but when the conversation turns to apportioning blame for the country's predicament, his faith in his fellow voters sounds strained.

"We're a democracy. You want to blame George Bush? Who put him in office? You want to blame Congress? Who put them in office? I think we've become so complacent, and so willing to let other people do our thinking for us. De Tocqueville said that in the American form of democracy, the people will get exactly the kind of government they deserve. And I'm saying, well, here we are."