Middle America: Welcome to the centre of the USA

The United States used to be so sure of its place in the world. To come from the land of the free was truly to be blessed. Not any more. Disillusionment with the President is growing. American self-confidence is draining away. There's a malaise gnawing at the nation's soul. Where did it all go wrong? Rupert Cornwell visited the country's geographic dead centre in search of the answer
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The Independent US

The exact geographic centre of the continental USA lies at latitude 39.50 north and longitude 98.35 west or, more prosaically, about a mile north-west of the little town of Lebanon in north-central Kansas. I arrived there the other day, on a perfect Great Plains evening. The bad weather of a few hours earlier had cleared out. Low on the edge of a rinsed blue sky, the sun slanted across the bare, endlessly undulating landscape. Only the cry of the meadow larks and the rustle of the wind in the cottonwood trees disturbed the silence.

A cairn marks this other American ground zero. Nearby stands a small motel, locked and empty now but still trim with its pale grey walls, green-painted windows and tidy shrubs. There is a shaded area with picnic tables and a tiny wood-frame chapel that measures 10ft by 6ft and contains three rows of pews - a contender surely for the smallest free-standing church on earth.

Quite why a visitor should feel moved to commune with the Almighty at this particular spot is not immediately clear. But then this is Kansas, a state embedded in American myth. If America is God's chosen country, then Kansas sees itself as America's embodiment, spiritual as well as geographic - the repository of its basic virtues of decency and straight dealing, of resilience and common sense.

This is the Kansas of the movies - of the fairy tale of The Wizard of Oz, and of the nightmare of the The Day After, the 1983 drama that remains the cinema's most terrifying depiction of life after nuclear war, for which the state served as location. In good times and in the worst of times, Kansas is symbol of the nation. But visitors must not be deceived by the stillness of the empty prairie.

This is a state in turmoil, at the heart of a country plagued by self doubt. Barely 15 years ago, the collapse of the Soviet Union seemed to usher in an age of American supremacy, for which no end was in sight. The US accounts for just 5 per cent of the world's population, but a quarter of its economic output. The US spends more on its military than the next dozen countries combined. No less irresistible has been America's "soft power" - the global reach of US science, education and culture, from the discoveries of Nobel prize-winners to Hollywood movies and chart-topping pop music, from its corporate brands and sports logos to the crassest social trends.

But suddenly, that supremacy seems anything but boundless. US economic prosperity is now built upon debt and deficits, and the fate of the dollar rests with central banks in Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul as much as with the Federal Reserve in Washington, DC. The limits of US military power are being exposed by Iraq today, and perhaps tomorrow by Iran. America is used to being loved. To its bewilderment, it now finds itself detested across the Islamic world and beyond. Closer to home, soaring petrol prices are an affront to the order of the universe - not to mention the sprawling suburban lifestyle that is the American way.

Not surprisingly, discontent with the country's institutions grows, along with bilious arguments over who, or what, is to blame. Is the problem too much government, or too little? Too much God, or too little? Is it foreigners, with their cheap labour and cheap goods that are driving America's doughty middle class into penury? Or, some wonder, is the fault within themselves, in a society in which the old-fashioned virtues of thrift, self-reliance and a sense of community seem to be withering away? The anxiety gnaws at Kansas, and at the whole of America.

The most obvious victim of this unease, of course, is George W Bush. The President inevitably is regarded as the proximate cause of some of these ills. His approval ratings have tumbled to slightly above 30 per cent. These are depths not plumbed since Jimmy Carter evoked a national "malaise" in an earlier American age of discontent, when petrol prices went through the roof in the late 1970s. Only Richard Nixon, in the darkest hour of Watergate, has fallen significantly lower.

But other indicators are even more ominous. Kansas has long been celebrated for its ingrained distrust of government. Today, the rest of the country feels the same way, too. Bush may be unpopular, but according to a recent Wall Street Journal poll, only 22 per cent of Americans approve of how Congress is doing its job. And no matter that growth is running at 4 per cent a year and that unemployment is nationally next to non-existent; no less than 77 per cent of the population feels "uneasy" about the economy. Meanwhile, the "right track, wrong track" indicator, to which political pundits attach special significance, shows that by a 67-24 per cent margin, Americans believe their country is heading in the wrong direction.

Like George Bush in the White House, as the party in power on Capitol Hill, Republicans have the most to lose. "We're going through a rough patch," is how one leading Kansas Republican delicately described matters, six months before November's mid-term elections. "The storm is coming," he told me. "The only question is, how bad will it be?"

In fact, even if the Republicans lose control of one, or both, chambers of Congress this autumn, Kansas itself may be spared the worst of it. True, even here, where he won 62 per cent of the vote in the 2004 presidential election, Bush's popularity has sunk below 50 per cent. But none of the state's four congressional seats, currently three Republican and one Democrat, is likely to change hands.

Nonetheless, the state is a cameo of the political tensions gnawing at the entire country - so much so that a book, What's the Matter with Kansas? last year became a national bestseller. But the title of the British edition, What's the Matter with America?, was even more indicative. What has happened in down-home Kansas, for the author Thomas Frank, illustrates what is happening everywhere in the US. The conservative Republican movement, led by Ronald Reagan, that gained its grip on Kansas, has gained a grip on the country, argues Frank, by luring erstwhile Democrats to vote for the party of the rich and big business, persuading them to place conservative cultural values ahead of their basic economic interests.

But more of that in a moment. First, it may be worth going back half a century, to the imagined golden age of the 1950s, when the US accounted for half the global economy, when all was wholesome and innocent - and when a man from Kansas ran the country.

A hundred odd miles south of Lebanon lies the all-American town of Abilene. The place is as patriotic as they come. A few miles away is Fort Riley - America's Warfighting Center, as it advertises itself to passing drivers on I-70 - soon to be the new base for the First Infantry Division when "The Big Red One" returns from Germany. Military vehicles painted desert beige are lined up near the runway, a heavy hint of missions to come. But for now, the return of "The Big Red One" represents a precious economic boost for this particular slice of central Kansas.

Route 15 from the interstate leading into the centre of Abilene is studded with houses built in the solid, turn-of-the-19th-century style that Americans call Victorian. More strikingly, the Stars and Stripes flutters from every lamp post along the way. Was the display to celebrate a holiday, I wondered as I drove into town one Monday this month - or even to mark National Prayer Day, which was to be celebrated by a mayoral lunch that Thursday? No, I was told. They are there all the time. Like many places on the plains, Abilene is bisected by railway tracks that shimmer into the horizon and are flanked by towering grain silos. But this is no ordinary prairie town. For one thing, it boasts the Greyhound Hall of Fame (every racing greyhound in the US has to be registered here), dating back to the days when settlers, many of them from Britain, brought the dogs with them to chase down the local jack rabbits.

Its name is part of the old West, famous from when the town was a rail head where cattle driven up from Texas were shipped off to Kansas City, Chicago and the East. For a couple of months in 1871, none other than James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok was Abilene's marshall, before he was asked to leave after killing a couple of men in a gun fight.

But the place is most famous for a man whose boyhood home is the centrepiece of a complex of buildings just south of the Union Pacific railway tracks, in the poorer part of town. In the white wood-frame house, lovingly restored and maintained, Dwight David Eisenhower grew up, until he left in 1911 for the US military academy at West Point, New York.

No matter that he was born in Texas and only rarely returned to Abilene in later life, and that when he retired, first from the army and then from the Presidency, he chose not Abilene but his farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Eisenhower is regarded as a quintessential Kansan: reliable, pragmatic and thrifty. And in these troubled times, in the fluctuating market of presidential reputations, his is most definitely on the rise.

Step on to the grounds of his Presidential Library complex, and you travel back half a century to a simpler, and maybe a happier, age. Eisenhower's parents, belonging to a Mennonite sect locally known as the "River Brethren", had a strong pacifist strain. The house itself exudes propriety, frugality and upright family life. The children, though, were already looking further afield. One day, the story runs, young Ike (as Dwight was popularly known) and one of his five brothers were talking about what to do when they grew up. The brother's ambition was to be President - while Dwight, a gifted all-round athlete, wanted to be a professional baseball player.

Eisenhower used to be regarded as the "do-nothing" President - the "bland leading the bland", as someone once dubbed his administration. He might have been a listed national monument, but essentially he minded the shop until the younger generation, led by the glamorous JFK, came along. He was criticised for his tepid stance on civil rights, his failure to stand up to McCarthyism, for allowing the Soviets to catch up in the arms race, and generally for being out of touch.

These days, however, the old soldier is looking quite a prophet. His famous valedictory warning in 1961 about the perils of the "military industrial complex" appeals to liberals. For Republicans and Democrats alike, in this age of Iraq and a shapeless, interminable "war on terror", he now emerges from history as a leader who helped win a world war when he was in uniform, and ended another war, in Korea, when he occupied the Oval Office.

Ike "was the general who truly hated war but hated the Nazis more", wrote the historian and Eisenhower biographer Stephen Ambrose. "He was the president who made a peace and kept the peace - and then provided the conditions that made it possible for the American people to exercise their right to pursue happiness." How different from today's America, gripped by economic worry and led into war by a president without the slightest experience of what war means.

Would Eisenhower have invaded Iraq? I put the question to Mack Teasley, director of the Eisenhower Foundation, in his expansive book-lined office next door to the Eisenhower Presidential Library. Teasley thought hard before answering. Everything has been changed by 9/11, he pointed out, "but was Ike for preventive war? Probably not. At the time, he warned about getting involved in a full-scale Middle East war, and remember, he stopped the British and French at Suez. But once into Iraq, he would surely have insisted on getting the job done."

Times, of course, have changed, even without 9/11. "Back in the 1950s everything was black and white, in every sense, from the Cold War to race," Teasley said. "Things were simpler then. There weren't complicated issues like gay marriage, abortion and so on. And if Eisenhower came back now the enemy wouldn't just be the Communists. The new enemy is everywhere." Teasley notes, too, that he would confront a "more diverse, antagonistic and intrusive media, after him 24 hours a day." Even so, the comparisons do not flatter George W Bush. Eisenhower knew what war was like from the sharp end. One of his Presidential Museum's most compelling exhibits is the statement (dated, oddly, July 5 not June 5, 1944) that Ike had drafted in case the D-Day landings failed, in which he accepted sole blame for the disaster. He ran for President in part because Robert Taft, otherwise the likely Republican nominee in 1952, was lukewarm on Nato. Eisenhower was a conciliator and consensus builder - neither of them terms that sit easily on Bush - and Americans liked him for it.

He could play dirty, of course, as when he authorised the coup that overthrew Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran and replaced him with the pro-American Shah. If only Persian affairs were as easy to manage today, Bush could be forgiven for thinking. In 1958, Eisenhower did send US troops to the Middle East - to Lebanon to bolster the pro-Western government of the day against threats from Syria and Egypt. Unlike Iraq, however, that mission ended in success after three months, with the 14,000-strong US force having lost just one man in combat.

Today the bloody and, it is now clear, unnecessary US entanglement in Iraq is destroying Bush's presidency. Eisenhower, by contrast, remained popular throughout his two terms. He might have seemed ineffectual, but people had little to complain about. The post-war economy was booming, and there was a cultural explosion of music, fashion and the like.

Indeed, Teasley likes to see Eisenhower's life as a tale of two frontiers. "He was born in 1890 when the frontier era ended - that is to say, the point at which more people lived in settled towns than were scattered across the range. He died in 1969, the year we reached another frontier, by landing a man on the moon." American technological pride, not to mention Eisenhower's prestige, had taken a battering when the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957, but within four months the US had sent its own Explorer craft into orbit. Thus started the space race, which America would win when Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon a dozen years later.

However miserable his poll ratings, all is not lost for Bush. "History tends to be written by liberals," Beasley, an avowed Republican, laments. On the other hand, its verdicts are always temporary. Eisenhower, once consigned to the bottom third of most people's rankings of presidents, has after all staged a comeback. So has Ronald Reagan, derided as an "amiable dunce" when in office, but now considered the architect of Cold War victory. Or take Harry Truman, whose approval ratings fell even lower than those of the present incumbent but who is now considered one of the best presidents ever. One day, even George W Bush may be proved right, as the man who read the Middle East correctly after all. Right now, however, it doesn't look that way, not even in loyal Abilene.

On the other side of the tracks at 304 Broadway you will find Bankes (pronounced "Bankees") Drug Store, home to a daily coffee klatsch session in which a group of regulars gathers to chew over the issues of the day. Those present the afternoon I dropped by included John Zutaverner, city commissioner, Bill Sunde, Abilene's code enforcement officer, Lynn Peterson, whose company designs and makes gravestones, and Walt Hoffman, a retired banker.

Tending to their needs is 66-year-old Nadine Horton, retiring this year after 15 years as manager. "This meeting was already going when I arrived at Bankes," she told me as she dispensed coffee from the perfectly preserved soda fountain where the group meets - all stainless steel, chrome and period Coca-Cola ads, with formica tables and leatherette booths. Ike might still be President for all the place has changed. "If you want the 1950s, that Americana feel, then come to Abilene," jokes Dave Bergmeier, editor of the local paper, the Reflector-Chronicle.

But in Bankes, too, Iraq is on people's minds. I took a straw poll among the group. One participant was unequivocally against the invasion (Walter Hoffman, an avowed liberal), and another was still 100 per cent in favour. The rest were somewhere in the middle. "In retrospect we probably shouldn't have gone in," says John Zutaverner. "We were right to go in," counters Bill Sunde, "the trouble is we don't have enough troops." Lynn Peterson agrees: "The miscalculation was, we should have brought in more forces, sooner."

But this is hardly a ringing endorsement, given that this is Abilene, one of the most Republican parts of a Republican state, where unaffiliated voters outnumber Democrats, and Republicans far outnumber both. Bush might be in real trouble in the US as a whole, and even in Kansas, but he would still carry Abilene relatively comfortably.

In March, Dave Bergmeier did a column for the Reflector-Chronicle to mark the third anniversary of the 2003 invasion. It sums up the mood in this corner of the US heartland as well as anything. Iraq, he wrote, "is a four-letter word...I haven't been a harsh critic of the war and probably won't start now; like many Americans I believed in the weapons of mass destruction theories... And even now, I'm not all that disappointed in our President, who I think was trying to do what was best for our country." Disappointments will continue, Bergmeier predicted, but sooner or later the troops will be home.

But there's more than Iraq on the minds of the crowd in Bankes. Kansas by definition is as far from America's borders as you can get, but it, too, is affected by the issue of immigration that currently consumes the country. Without immigrant workers, the giant meat-packing plants at Garden City in the south-west of the state, where almost half the population is Hispanic, simply couldn't function. The worries here mirror those everywhere else: about wage rates being driven through the floor, about the strain immigrants place on stretched hospitals and schools, about a creeping erosion of national identity.

Kansas cherishes its help-thy-neighbour ethic. But it is not a place to be poor. The myth is of a kingdom of doughty independent farmers; the reality is an ever-mightier agri-industrial complex of fewer and larger farms, and a steady decline in the rural population. Former settlements have become ghost towns, a majority of Kansas counties are seeing their populations fall. And there are other, even more irreversible, trends. The vast Oglala aquifer, which stretches under seven plains states, is now being depleted so fast here that the irrigation on which farming in western Kansas depends may be impossible in a couple of decades.

And then of course there's the price of petrol, which powers cars, trucks and all the farm machinery that churns across the expanses of America's wheat basket. Outside the major cities, public transport does not exist. The rail tracks that bisect Abilene link the town to Kansas City and beyond. But the 40 trains a day that pass through are all freight trains, carrying coal and wheat - not people. Here, without private transport you are lost.

Europeans may laugh at a local petrol price that works out at 40p a litre. But Kansas's 2.7 million people are scattered across a territory as large as England. If, like me, you fly into Kansas City on the Missouri side and then have to drive across 250 miles of the state to get to the geographic centre, the cost is anything but funny.

Soaring oil prices, war in Iraq, worries over immigration and falling living standards - anywhere else these factors would be decisive in politics. But not in Kansas politics. Seen from here, 9/11 and the "war on terror" seem far away. This is a strange place, where moral and cultural issues outrank those of the pocketbook. Carried to extremes, the habit has brought national and international ridicule on the state. But it also provides an intriguing explanation of how Republicans have come to dominate national politics - and where those national politics may be heading now.

A hour or so's drive east of Abilene lies the Kansas state capital, Topeka, with its handsome honeyed stone statehouse, modelled, like its peers across the country, on the Capitol in Washington, DC. Outwardly, Topeka's distinction ends there. The streets are wide and depressingly empty. On every corner seems to be a parking lot. Recently, a novelty greeting card caused a stir locally when it depicted a corpse lying in a Topeka street. A passer by asks what was the cause of death. "Boredom," comes the answer. To which one can reply that the unfortunate soul cannot have been following state politics of late.

These days Kansas is an extraordinary laboratory whose experiments could hold lessons for the entire country. So divided is the state's dominant Republican party that politics operate under a de facto three-party system. And if America is well known for its culture wars, nowhere have they reached the internecine fury of Kansas, pitting Republican against Republican, and Kansas against a disbelieving, often mocking, world beyond.

Over the last hundred years, the place has undergone an extraordinary change. Once it was a breeding ground for radical populism. The then Kansas Territory was where John Brown, martyr or terrorist depending on your point of view, went on his murderous anti-slavery rampages. A dramatic mural adorns the east wing of the state house, showing a Brown rampant, a bible in his left hand and a rifle in his right, standing on the plain with a tornado approaching behind him.

This was the Kansas whose farmers were soon being urged to "raise less corn and more hell", and where in 1919, in the then socialist south-east corner of the state, a small-town newspaper publisher called Emanuel Haldeman-Julius launched the "Little Blue Books" - stapled 3in by 5in paperbacks designed to fit into a worker's back pocket, bringing him great literature, practical knowledge and honest discussion of economic, religious and social topics, even socialism, atheism and homosexuality - that became famous around the world.

But that was then. Gradually, Kansan populism has shifted from left to right. It has not sent a Democratic senator since the New Deal, and Lyndon Johnson, in his 1964 landslide, is the only Democratic presidential candidate to carry the state in 60 years. Kansas gave George Bush 62 per cent of its vote in the 2004. In addition to three of the state's four congressional seats, Republicans hold majorities in both houses of the state legislature.

The incubator of radicalism has turned into an incubator of cultural conservatism. The most recent fuss, when the state school board issued guidelines telling biology classes to spend more time on intelligent design and less on Darwin, was only one modest example. The most extreme - and one abhorred by most Kansans - is Fred Phelps, head of the homophobic Westboro Baptist Church based at his home in Topeka, whose mission in life is summed up by its website www.godhatesfags.com. Phelps has even taken to picketing at the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq in protest at the policy of permitting gays in the military.

Phelps of course is a sick aberration. But what explains this sea change in social attitudes? The answer, according to Thomas Frank, in What's the Matter with Kansas? is a monstrous Republican scam. The party has cleverly removed economics from the political debate. Like turkeys voting for Christmas, the good but misguided citizens of Kansas, already at the mercy of a huge and exploitative agro-industrial complex, have been induced to vote for deregulation, tax boosts for business and so on, all supposedly to further their social goals and general pursuit of righteousness.

Joseph Aistrup teaches politics at Kansas State University at Manhattan (the "Little Apple" as street signs in this town of 35,000 some 1,200 miles from its teeming East Coast namesake inevitably proclaim). Like most people I spoke to in Kansas, Aistrup doesn't really buy Frank's dark theorising. The key, he argues, is populism. In the socialist heyday of the early 1900s, the enemy was robber baron capitalism. Now government is the villain, as it attempts to dictate how people live. A century ago Republicans, then as now the party of big business, were the target for populist activism. Now it is Democrats, the champions of big government - and any moderate Republican who shares any of their sympathies.

"For our social conservatives, government is the purveyor of liberal attitudes on sex education, evolution, abortion," Aistrup says. "When they're voting for tax cuts and so on, they're really trying to kill the beast that's government. The fact that tax cuts go to the rich, they don't care too much about that." But if people choose to give a higher priority to their cultural and social convictions than to their economic self-interest, then why not?

Nor is the pattern new. Back in 1980, blue-collar "Reagan Democrats" gained their name by switching to the Republican presidential candidate - not just because of Jimmy Carter's mismanagement of the economy, but also because they found Reagan's old-fashioned moral certainties more appealing than the permissive liberalism championed by Carter. But nowhere have culture wars influenced political wars like Kansas.

The first example came back in 1974 when Bob Dole - war hero, former Senate majority leader, one-time presidential candidate, and the most illustrious living Kansan - was heading for election defeat at the hands of a popular Democrat, a doctor who happened during his career to have performed several abortions. The Dole campaign pulled out a narrow win by carpeting the state with leaflets showing dead foetuses in rubbish bins, accompanied by the words "Vote Dole."

But the real turning point was the 1991 "Summer of Mercy", when tens of thousands of pro-life activists descended on Wichita to lay siege to local abortion clinics. Hundreds were thrown into jail, but for a while at least it was a moment of awakening for the clinics, and for socially conservative Kansans. Drive along the roads of the Great Plains today and you'll see regular billboards proclaiming, "Smile, Your Mom Chose Life."

Now the state's ultra-conservative attorney general Phill Kline has stirred new controversy by requiring that all abortion clinics and doctors report to the police cases of suspected "child rape" - sexual intercourse, even consensual, involving minors of under 16. He says it is to "protect the children"; his foes accuse him of a back-door effort to criminalise abortion.

But nothing has made Kansas so famous lately as the rumpus over creationism and its intellectual stalking horse, "intelligent design". In 2005 the 10-member Kansas Board of Education voted six to four that it was only "fair" that intelligent design be taught alongside evolution, and that students should be told about the "controversy" surrounding Darwinism.

The world laughs at these primitive plainsfolk, and biology teachers on the faculties of Kansas colleges cringe when they meet their colleagues from elsewhere. But the policy stands, at least until this November's elections for a new KBoE. Meanwhile, Aistrup laughs as he recalls a recent trip to London where he found Darwin's face staring at from the back of the £10 note. "You'd never, ever, find his face on a $10 bill in Kansas."

And now, immigration has joined this cultural witches' brew. Kansas is not anti-immigrant, but it is utterly American. Here, as everywhere, the debate cuts to the heart of America and its cultural identity. For conservative populists, and not only in Kansas, the influx of foreigners is one more threat to the American way - and one more strand in the moral crisis facing the country.

You hear the same complaint everywhere. David Kensinger is a hyper-articulate lobbyist and activist who is chairman of the Shawnee County Republican party, and was former chief of staff to the state's ultra-conservative senator Sam Brownback. He made that very point the following day, in his office in downtown Topeka.

"There is a Romanesque rot about American culture," says Kensinger, noting apropos that the first volume of Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall appeared in 1776, the year of the Declaration of Independence. An alumnus of Exeter College Oxford and a keen student of British politics, he peppers his discourse on the state of US politics with references to Carlyle, Locke and Burke. But the message is plain.

He laments the prevalence of abortion, the decline of the institution of marriage, and the gradual loss of America's "undergirding of bourgeois virtues". He describes himself as "pro-growth and pro-family". Others note that he is a leading member of the far-right Club For Growth, which targets the elected Republicans it dubs Rinos, "Republicans In Name Only" deemed insufficiently passionate believers in freedom, free markets, and tax cuts without end.

Either way, Kensinger is anxious about the state of the country, about an American supremacy that rests on a foundation of massive foreign debt, and that "in the last resort is only asserted by military power". Allan Cigler, professor of politics at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, a college-town Democratic pocket in the east of the state, is a self-described social democrat and could hardly be more different. But he is similarly concerned. "I worry about the decreasing communal aspects of US life, about the coarsening of the culture. I think that there's a sense among Kansans that the country's gone to hell, but we've retained our standards - that Kansans are the real Americans."

But proof perfect of Thomas Frank's theory of political inversion in Kansas came the evening before. I was having dinner in the Topeka Steak House, a rough and ready place a few miles east of town, where customers roll up in their pick-up trucks and SUVs and most are on their way home by 8 pm. I was reading What's the Matter with Kansas? over a decent ribeye steak when my waitress saw the title and asked what it was about.

"Oh," I replied, "It says that ordinary people in Kansas have been duped into voting against their economic interests when they back Republican candidates." But the waitress, a mother of three called Linda McGinty, was having none of it. "Democrats just support programmes to keep themselves in power," she told me. What about the evolution row, I asked. "I feel we shouldn't teach about Darwin unless we teach about intelligent design," she replied, adding that she herself was a creationist. "This country was founded according to God's law, and we did so well. Now we're going the other way, and look what's happening."

So the fight will go on, even though the political victories change nothing. Cultural conservatives have made electoral advances in Kansas and across the country, but despite every effort of the Kansas board of education, Darwin still rules. Decades of vigorous campaigning by the pro-life lobby have failed to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling that enshrines a woman's right to an abortion. Back in Abilene, a local district attorney based his 2004 election campaign on a promise to get rid of a highly visible adult entertainment store on the interstate just outside town. He won the election. The store is still there.

Kansas politics, however, has been less impervious to change. The culture warriors may have little concrete to show for their labours. But their offensive has split the state Republican party in two, so that the state in practice has a three-party system: Democrats, Republican moderates and Republican conservatives. Some predict that it could set a pattern for Republicans at a national level.

Both established parties have built their historic eras of dominance in the 20th century - Republican at its start, then Democrat, and Republican again at the end - on coalitions. The Democrat supremacy that stretched from Roosevelt to LBJ was built on an alliance of labour, liberal intellectuals and the old South. It fell apart with Johnson's historic civil rights reforms, as the "southern strategy" of Richard Nixon lured anti-civil rights Democrats into the Republican camp. In 2000 and 2004, no Southern state voted for Al Gore or John Kerry. Today, of the 22 US senators from the states of the old Confederacy, only two are Democrats.

The Republicans now have their own proven winner - a coalition that embraces pro-business "Rockefeller Republicans" from the traditional East Coast establishment, the new Republican South, and cultural conservatives of the ilk now so common in Kansas.

Once the state was the preserve of moderate Republicans - Eisenhower, then Bob Dole ( in his later years at least) and its beloved Nancy Landon Kassebaum, daughter of Alf Landon (whom Roosevelt defeated for the presidency in 1936) and a three-term senator until she retired in 1997. Now they often resemble Kensinger, scourge of any Republican who utters a word in favour of regulation or taxes.

In his Club of Growth guise, Kensinger is widely credited with engineering the defeat of moderate Bill Kassebaum, Nancy's son, by a true-believer conservative in the Republican primary for a Kansas House of Representatives seat in 2004. "This is not the party I knew," the son lamented after he had lost. Kensinger tartly responded: "The Republican party Bill Kassebaum knew fought 20 consecutive sets of elections to the US Congress until 1994, and lost the lot. Since then, the party rebuilt by Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich has won six times in a row."

For Kensinger, his state is not a leading, but a trailing indicator of Republican fortunes. Nationally, he argues, the Reaganite takeover of the party is almost complete, "but here in Kansas the old guard hangs on". Others, however, are less sure. As George Bush founders, they argue that Kansas could be a pointer to the unravelling of the great Republican coalition at a national level, if moderates become so fed up with the tyranny of conservatives that they switch sides.

In Washington there has been little sign of this happening, though in 2001 Jim Jeffords, a moderate Republican, abandoned his party in exasperation to become an independent who voted with the Democrats - which cost Republicans control of the US Senate for 18 months. But in Kansas it has happened frequently, as moderate Republicans have backed Democrats to keep the other faction out.

That, for instance, was how Kathleen Sebelius was elected governor in 2002. She has made a good job of it as well, skilfully building coalitions in the centre. She is reckoned all but sure of re-election this November; some even claim she is the country's third most plausible woman president after Hillary Rodham Clinton and Condoleezza Rice.

That may be more a case of Kansan chauvinism than sober political judgement. But Sebelius boosters have a point. This November, sheer disgust at Bush and the Republicans may enable the Democrats to win the Senate, the House or even both. As one columnist put it, this autumn "the Democrats don't need a programme, just a two-word campaign slogan: 'Had Enough?'."

If a Democrat is to recapture the White House in 2008, he or she must appeal to independents and moderate Republicans. In that sense, Kansas and Sebelius are showing the way. In reality, there's no way she'll run. If a Kansan does seek the White House, it will probably be the arch social conservative, Senator Brownback. In the primaries, where conservative activists vote in huge numbers, he probably would not disgrace himself. But in the greater scheme of things, he has no chance.

So back to the man from Kansas who did make to the House. There is one final sense in which Dwight Eisenhower is relevant. In this new era of discontent and malaise, the US looks like promising territory for a candidate from outside the established system. In the far less stressful times of 1992, the erratic billionaire Ross Perot won a thumping 19 per cent of the vote. Though he ran as a Republican, Eisenhower was affiliated to neither party and courted by both. Is there a new Eisenhower, perhaps from business, not the military, out there somewhere? As I headed home from Kansas, the question wouldn't go away.

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