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Iowa: A barometer for the swing states

By Richard Quest, CNN
updated 7:28 AM EDT, Thu November 1, 2012
  • CNN's Richard Quest is in Davis County, where in 1864 the Confederates made one of their most daring raids of the war
  • He is in the U.S. as part of American Quest, a series on the election airing from October 29
  • Quest stops in Iowa because it is a swing state which often votes for the election winner
  • Quest finds the "role of government" theme is at the heart of the election, permeating all of the country's issues

Editor's note: Watch Quest Means Business on CNN International, 1800pm GMT weekdays. Quest Means Business is presented by CNN's foremost international business correspondent Richard Quest. Follow him on Twitter. The American Quest is an eight-day journey across the U.S. You can watch the series from October 29.

Iowa (CNN) -- The day did not start well. Lightning, thunder and torrential rain poured down over Bloomfield, Iowa, where I had come to watch a civil war reenactment.

In 1864, here in Davis County, the Confederates made one of their most daring and northerly guerrilla raids of the war. Each year, enthusiasts from the Unionists and Confederates remember that battle.

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I have chosen to leave Amtrak's California Zephyr train in Iowa, because this swing state is in play -- with President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney jockeying for the lead.

While Iowa's six Electoral College votes may be few, at this stage of the campaign every one counts. And Iowa has split the last 10 elections five to five Republican and Democrat (although more Democrat since 1988). Crucially it has voted for the winner in seven of those ten races.

This swing state could be a barometer of the way other swing states are trending.

Expand: CNN's American Quest  Expand: CNN's American Quest
Expand: CNN's American Quest Expand: CNN's American Quest

So I am at the battle ground, watching the men and women dressed in period costumes and waiting for the storms to subside (they will fight in the rain, but holding metal tipped muskets in the air is too dangerous with lightning).The attention to detail is impressive.

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The players each have individual characters and play them with gusto, rarely coming out of role. One soldier would only answer me as if we were still in 1861. Another believed Abraham Lincoln had the right answers for today too.

With muskets set aside, it soon became clear why this is a swing state. A Unionist soldier said it was only now that people like him were really focusing on their choices. His Confederate rival bemoaned the deceit in the campaign, which made it hard to know who was telling the truth. And the civil war nurse, tending to her potions and lotions, admitted it was hard to know who was best.

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At the core of the election, all agreed, was the role of government in America. Getting government "out of our lives" was the constant refrain. Government had gone too far, they believed. "A return to the Constitution" was needed I was told, again and again. There needed to be more respect for individual freedoms. "Government" was the problem, not the solution.

Nowhere was this more crystallized than on the issue of gun control. I would hardly expect men and women running around the Iowa countryside brandishing civil war weaponry to favor stricter gun laws, but they believed their "right to bear arms," enshrined in the second amendment, was under threat. Although neither candidate has really taken up the issue of gun control, here there was a stronger anti-Obama tone. Romney was the candidate of choice.

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This "role of government" theme is now at the heart of the election. It permeates all issues: Economic: Should the government have rescued the banks in 2008? Social: Is it the government's business to legislate on marriage? In commerce the phrase I keep hearing is, "get government off the backs of business," and in issues seen as highly personal, the refrain is "that's none of the government's damned business."

Americans seem to want everything and nothing from their government at the same time. It is the great contradiction of this country, which makes covering its elections so fascinating. It is perfectly displayed on this civil war field in the views of the soldiers and their families.

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In this battle both sides agreed to let the Confederates win, as they did in 1864. Tomorrow it will be the Unionists' turn to enjoy victory. I guarantee that the election for Iowa's six electoral votes will see no such gentlemanly agreement. They will be fought for with the passion, but thankfully, not the violence of their predecessors.

I won't be here to see Unionist victory. I have a train to catch. The horn of the California Zephyr is calling and Colorado is a night ride away.

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