COLUMBIA - The first thing you hear is the sound of shuffling cards and hushed conversation. Four or five men and women play cards off the main hall, talking about the weather and the game at hand. The Senior Center of Columbia is not a place where people typically go to share their thoughts on politics. There's little discussion about the Democratic National Convention, or about the election at all.
But, then again, no one's really bothered to ask.
Pollsters and pundits have been breaking this election down into every sub-group of the population imaginable. Most have locked in the senior vote for McCain. It's a widely held assumption that older people tend to vote Republican, but listening to these men and women suggests a different trend.
Many worry about the economy, health care and the war in Iraq. And very few are sure about which candidate will be able to solve those issues.
Jim Carney, a 40-year Columbia resident, is still undecided in this election. Carney has been a Republican election judge for many years but said this election season "seems like it's different." He's unsure exactly what he wants.
But he knows what he doesn't want.
"I'm not for higher taxes, that's for certain," he said, his voice firm but quiet.
Carney said he's interested in Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and his plans to distribute wealth among middle- or lower-class Americans by raising taxes on wealthier taxpayers.
"But you know politicians," he added, his voice heavy with the experience of previous elections, "they always say they're going to do one thing and turn around and do another."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is weak on the economy, Carney said, and that's an important issue to him.
"We've got to solve the gasoline prices," he said, shaking his head.
Carney said he still owns corn and soybean land in the area, and he sold some of his corn to an ethanol plant near Macon last year. But he doesn't think ethanol is the only way out of the nation's energy crisis.
Carney supports off-shore drilling. He said he thinks it will ease the strain on the economy. And, he said he hopes McCain will consider Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who supports drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as well as off-shore drilling, as a running mate.
Carney also supports privatized health care. He envisions a system that would give people control over their money, with the opportunity to put their money in low-risk investments. "I wish I'd had the chance at that. I'd be way ahead."
In the dining room, two groups of women played hand-and-foot. It's a type of advanced canasta, they said, laughing.
The first group, made up of four ladies, all agreed that women stole the show at the Democratic convention Tuesday.
Joanna Williams said she also was particularly impressed with the speech from Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer. Schweitzer, who gave a speech supporting Obama's energy plan, captivated the Denver crowd with his ringing denunciation of Bush, McCain and the "petrodictators" that he said he believes keep the country addicted to oil. Williams said she knows who she'll vote for, but declined to say who.
Williams was recalled to her score-keeping duties as confusion rose over which team played the three of hearts. Red threes are important cards in hand-and-foot.
"It's going to be a difficult year to figure out who to vote for. I'm waiting to see what everybody offers to see what to do," Josephine Kulakowski said during the pause in action as Williams tallied the scores.
Taxes and war
At another table, six women were also playing a furious game of hand-and-foot. One player, Donna Harrison, identified herself as an independent and said she tends to favor Obama. "Though I'm scared he'll raise taxes," she said.
"They'll all raise taxes," one of her fellow card-players chimed in. Harrison tilted her head to concede the point. In any case, she said, Obama is still her man. "I like his personality," she said, "and I like his choice of vice president."
Judith Jarvis-Bodani said she likes Obama's choice of running mate, Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Delaware. But, she said she wishes she could vote for him and for McCain as president.
"I vote for the person," she said. "My first election was in 1958, when you had to vote a straight ticket. I was so glad when that was outlawed. I like to vote for the person, not the party."
Jarvis-Bodani has a brother who was in the military for 22 years and fought in Vietnam. "I'm more comfortable with McCain, because of his prison experience."
Jarvis-Bodani said she hopes McCain will pick a seasoned politician as his running mate as well. "Not just a one-term governor," she said. Experience is an important qualification to her, especially in times of war.
She said she did not approve of the United States' decision to go to war in Iraq but thinks the country must see it through.
"We're there now, we've got to figure out a way," she said. "But if they don't want a democracy, we have to accept that."
She returned to her card game. "Am I the only one who hasn't put in my foot?" she asked.
"You've been talking too much," another player joked.
Columbia resident Harmon Fansler, a bit brusque as he kept an eye out for his ride home, said he watched a bit of the convention but not much.
"You get tired of it," he said, "with everybody blowing up their candidate."
Who is he voting for? "Reluctantly Obama."
When in doubt, Fansler always votes Democrat. He might vote Libertarian this time, but he didn't know the candidate. (It's former Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia.)
For Fansler, the war is the biggest issue of this election. "I want out of that thing," he said, "We got to bring our boys home instead of killing them."
Laverne Jones, a transplant to Columbia from Arkansas who was sitting nearby, said he'll probably vote Democrat. He shook former President Clinton's hand once when Clinton dedicated the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport in 1998.
He liked the Clintons and supported Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., in the primaries.
"I thought Hillary was a good speaker and a smart lady," he said, "and when Mr. Bill Clinton ran the country he did an exceptionally good job."
Jones also likes Sen. Clinton's plans for universal health care. "I'd like to see that come about," he said.
If Obama had chosen Hillary Clinton as his vice president, he said, it would have been a cinch. Now he said he's not sure if either candidate is the right one for this country right now.
Still, Jones said he was impressed with Michelle Obama's speech and most likely will vote for her husband in November. "We've had eight years of the Republican Party, and its time for a change," he said.
He paused, turning in his chair to look at the television in the center, broadcasting the day's news. For a moment, it seemed the conversation was over. Then Jones turned back, with a hint of a wink in his right eye.
"But," he added, smiling, "you could ponder it all day and not know what you think."