Last week I journeyed up to New England to see what voters thought of the debate over Medicare, for another of our CJR Town Halls, which this political season have been focused on Medicare. Polls continue to show that most Americans are wary about the voucher plan advocated by the GOP ticket, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. Some people I met in Gloucester, MA., didn’t know much about the debate, but had plenty to say about the economy and about the tight Senate race between the Republican incumbent, Scott Brown, and his challenger, Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren. Signs for both appeared on many of the well-trimmed lawns of Cape Ann, perhaps indicating the intensityof the race. What came through in my interviews with Democrats and Republicans was a reflection of an intensely divided state, and country.

Olivia Zewinski

At the Minglewood Tavern, some people were reluctant to chat, saying they were tired of hearing about politics and the election. Olivia Zewinski, age 24, was not voting: “I’m embarrassed. I’m not registered to vote,” she said. She had missed the registration deadline. In the past when she was registered in other cities, Zewinski said she voted Democratic, and she supported Obama last time. She is studying nursing at a community college and works part time as a hostess at the LAT 43 restaurant. She told me that Medicare had been discussed in class. “I know Medicare is a huge deal,” she said. “It’s scary. I know the upcoming people will need care. My mother talks about it. She’s part of the population who will need care.” Other than that, Zewinsky didn’t know too much about the candidates’ proposals. She did say she liked Elizabeth Warren.

John and Tom

Two burly men sat at the restaurant bar. John, who’s 47, wouldn’t give his last name but he had a lot to say. He is a project manager for a construction contractor, and he’s been doing that job for 25 years for three different employers. “I’m a Republican, shading toward the side of Independent,” he told me, “I used to be a staunch Republican, but my views have changed.”

John was clear, though, he would vote for Brown. “He’s the hands-down candidate for me. The other candidate is too far on the other side, and I don’t go around telling people I’m an Indian when I’m not.” That was a reference to Warren claiming she was of Cherokee heritage. “I’m happy with the type of person Scott Brown is,” John said. “He looks like a real workingman’s politician.”

John said he is ticked off in some way about Obama’s birth certificate, adding that the president “makes inferences he’s a Muslim. He really has Muslim preferences. He has clearly said his father is a Muslim.” Where did he get this information? John said it was from a clip put together by “Hannity and Colmes” of Fox News fame, presumably meaning Sean Hannity. He told me he didn’t watch a lot of political shows but reads the Boston Herald. Not, he points out, The Boston Globe, which he calls the “Boston Democratic.”

John explained he would vote for Romney “because the country needs a business presence, not a community-organizing presence. The guy he picked for vice president has straightened out Wisconsin pretty good.” How? I wanted to know since Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, has been in Congress, not the statehouse in Madison. Ryan went after the unions, John thought, and he likes that. “The unions are killing us right now.”

John’s friend, Tom age 46, said he was an undecided voter. “I can lean either way,” he said, especially in the Senate race. “I have to listen to one more debate.” Brown and Warren had debated the day before I talked to Tom. “Some believe she lost in the first 55 seconds. It’s one to nothing now for Scott Brown.” Brown brought up he Cherokee thing and with it more controversy about Warren’s candidacy. What did John think of he debate? “I don’t think she’s that articulate,” he said.

Jeannine Mitchell and Stephen Dylinski

Down the street I met Jeannine Mitchell, 64, and her husband, Stephen Dylinski, 62, retired high school teachers, dining The Pub at Cape Ann Brewing Co. They were from Doylestown, PA., and touring the Massachusetts coast. They were happy to chat. Both are disgusted with Romney and will vote for the president. “Romney is crazy. He’s a terrible, terrible candidate. He was wrong to say that 47 percent of the people are on the dole. He’s a hyper-elite guy and doesn’t understand real people, Mitchell said. Her husband interjected, “He’s never stepped into a Philadelphia high school.”

Dylinski was particularly disgusted with Pennsylvania’s voter ID law. “Republicans passed the law to disenfranchise people who would vote for Obama. Disenfranchising people from voting could be considered a terrorist attack. Please quote me on that.” Both had taught school for more than 30 years and had pensions from the school district, as well as Social Security. They knew how valuable those things are. “Everyone should have what we have,” Mitchell said. “But most Americans will never see a pension and a few years of well-deserved retirement at a decent standard of living. Everyone should be able to have that.”

Our conversation turned to Medicare. “We are worried about it,” Mitchell said. Right now they pay $1300 a month for health insurance from Blue Cross—the full cost of the policy, the same one they had when they were working, only now they pay the full cost. They look forward to going on Medicare, when that monthly outlay will drop.

Paul and Kelly

Paul and his wife Kelly were having a hearty breakfast at the Sugar Magnolia café when I stopped by their table. Paul, 47, works in commercial lending for a Boston bank. Kelly, also 47, is a nurse and works for one of the towns outside of Boston. Paul made his preferences clear right off the bat. “I’m a big Scott Brown supporter. He’s a new face, and I probably agree with him on 75 percent of his positions. Paul said he was a conservative, but most likely would not vote for Romney, and definitely not Obama. He may write in a candidate.

What did he have against Obama? “His rhetoric is too divisive,” Paul said. “I don’t believe in his class warfare. His message is not conducive to solving problems.” Kelly said she was going to vote for Romney but not any more. “His remark about 47 percent not paying taxes was a little harsh,” she said. Paul was particularly concerned about the economy. “Continuing government spending without tax increases or budget spending cuts is irresponsible,” he told me. “I think we’ll have to broaden the tax base and look at Social Security and Medicare.”

What did he have in mind for those programs? “I’d raise the retirement age, the cap on wages, and cut benefits.” I probed more on the benefit cuts and asked if he knew what the average Social Security benefit is. (It’s $1,230). Paul didn’t know, but said, “Whatever it is, we can’t afford it. I don’t think we should have our own kids continue paying for this.” What will people do if they don’t get Social Security, I asked? “I think they have to take more responsibility,” Paul replied.

I asked about the family’s retirement plans. Paul has a 401(k) plan from the bank. Kelly has one but is not contributing to it right now. They were eager to finish their breakfast, so I had to move on without asking about what they would do if Social Security were not around.

Jesse Moore

Seventeen-year-old Jesse Moore was walking down the street listening to music. He was happy to talk about who he would vote for if he could vote. He’s not eligible until next summer. “I’d vote for Obama,” he told me. “He likes to help the poor. Mitt Romney only likes the rich. My parents hate him so I do too.”

Moore told me he had been accepted into the acting program at Emerson College in Boston and would go there next year after he graduates from high school. He told me he was one of five siblings who had been in foster homes, but it was their dad, a home care worker, who raised them. “I’m really proud of him,” he said.

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The word on the street: apprehensive

The word on the street: frustrated

The word on the street: insecure

Trudy Lieberman is a fellow at the Center for Advancing Health and a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR’s healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.