HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — Tom Cotton and John Cowart share an unusual credential as they compete for a congressional seat in southern Arkansas. Both have served with the military in Afghanistan, and both are ready to talk to voters about a war that is growing longer and more troubled.
But the two have discovered something surprising as they drop in at local gatherings in this thickly wooded district of farms and small towns.
Even in a place where at least 1 in 10 residents is a veteran, people aren't really keen to discuss Afghanistan. It's remote. They're worried about things at home.
Cotton, an Army veteran who spent nine months on a provincial reconstruction team in 2008-09, said he understands.
"A lot of the attention is more focused on bread-and-butter issues like taxes and spending and so forth," Cotton said.
It's the same story for Cowart, a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps reserves who returned from Afghanistan in January.
"People are very interested in what I have to say, but my gut instinct is that's not going to drive anyone's vote to a large extent," he said.
The campaign for Congress in Arkansas' 4th District, with its two candidates straight from a war zone, provides one glimpse of reality in a nation beset with an assortment of concerns as an election approaches. Three Republican contenders along with three Democrats are trying to address what's on voters' minds as grim news from a distant land mixes with local worries about jobs, taxes and gasoline prices.
The race here is wide open. The incumbent congressman, Democrat Mike Ross, announced his retirement after holding the seat for 11 years. Voters here tend to be conservative so Republicans see an excellent chance to pick up the seat.
For a candidate, a military background means something. A steady stream of young men and women from Hot Springs, Pine Bluff and smaller towns here have been deployed to combat zones over last decade. In an especially sad distinction, the district is home to one of the only families in the nation to lose two members in Afghanistan — brothers from El Dorado who were killed in 2009 and last January.
But the military connection doesn't make it easier for residents to know what to think about Afghanistan. Recent atrocities in the war zone, and attacks on U.S. soldiers by members of the Afghan security forces, have contributed to sharp declines in recent polls in the number of Americans who think the U.S. should still be at war in Afghanistan.
"I'm back and forth on it," said Joe Burba, 75, a retired pharmaceutical sales representative who said he plans on voting for Cotton. "One minute I think we should stay because if we get out of there, we're abandoning the thing. But then again, I see if we're abandoning them, what will the outcome be? Maybe we should be there, maybe we shouldn't be there. I don't know."
Burba was among about five dozen people who packed a dining room at a Hot Springs restaurant recently to meet Cotton. He was also the only voter to ask Cotton about the war. Others at Perkins Restaurant stuck mostly to the economy, government regulation and even congressional term limits.
The reason for the pocketbook concerns is no mystery. Many parts of this rural district are suffering, including cities like Pine Bluff where the unemployment rate of 10.3 percent is two full points higher than the national average.
Neither wood products nor manufacturing have fully recovered from the downturn. In Crossett, Georgia-Pacific suspended its plywood and stud production in September, laying off 700 people. Danfoss Scroll Technologies, a compressor manufacturer, laid off 100 workers in Arkadelphia.
"It's been stressful not knowing what's going to come next," David Boulden, a 52-year-old aluminum plant worker who's been laid off twice since 2009. Boulden's wife, a postal worker, has been out of her job since 2010. Boulden, a Democrat who has voted for Ross in the past, says he's unsure who he'll support this year. "I really do not have a lot of faith in the economy today."
Cotton, who leads the race in fundraising, regularly talks about his military experience in campaign appearances but relates it to dealing with problems at home and avoiding Washington's political morass.
"If I was able to stand my ground there, I think I can stand it in Congress," says the 34-year-old Harvard graduate, who left his law practice after the Sept. 11 attacks and served in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, he worked with local leaders in Laghman province on reconstruction projects.
Cowart, a 41-year-old Texarkana police officer, spent time at a provincial police headquarters in the Helmand province that was frequently under assault. Cowart was 150 yards from a suicide bombing last July that killed 11 people. "You don't get used to that part, at least, as long as your mind is right," Cowart said.
The two veterans, as well as the four other candidates in the race, espouse positions that show the conflicting impulses about the war: a desire to leave soon but also to achieve something.
"I want them to come home in victory, though not in defeat," Cotton said.
Beth Anne Rankin, the other Republican candidate, was Miss Arkansas in 1994 and later an aide to Gov. Mike Huckabee. She said she understands people's frustration with the war. "I've only heard one person say our military should stay over there indefinitely, no matter what," Rankin said.
The Republican candidates all say they are opposed to the December 2014 deadline President Barack Obama has set for a withdrawal. Q. Byrum Hurst, a Hot Springs attorney running for the Democratic party's nomination, said he wants to see troops, which now number about 90,000, leave more quickly.
But all talk mostly about the economy and excessive government, because that's what is on voters' minds.
No one really knows what to think about Afghanistan now, says Larry Bailey, a retired Army colonel and Vietnam veteran who is among the many veterans living in retirement havens such as Hot Springs. He says he's conflicted.
"As the old saying goes, nobody wants there not to be a war more than the soldier," said Bailey, who is the Republican Party's chairman for the 4th District.
Andrew DeMillo can be reached at www.twitter.com/ademillo