OCEANSIDE, San Diego County, California -
Dennis Dalbey, armed with scissors, an electric hair clipper and a steady
hand, has given dozens of Camp Pendleton's young Marines the regulation haircut
before they head to combat in Iraq.
In his Cut-Rite Barbershop on the Coast Highway, he wears his loyalty to
those customers openly -- the business is adorned with painted yellow
ribbons, flags and "We support our troops'' banners.
But these days, Dalbey, a Republican and a self-described conservative who
voted for President Bush, is not nearly as supportive of the commander in
"Enough is enough,'' he said of the war while showing Lance Cpl. Aaron
Kernell, 19, from Tennessee, to a red Naugahyde chair for a cut. "If they
haven't got this thing settled by year's end, it's time to bring the boys
As the nation marks the third anniversary of the country's entry into the
Iraq war, Dalbey's deeply felt pessimism echoes through a region that remains
California's most loyal Republican stronghold. The feelings, from California
voters who have backed Bush, underscore the depth of political troubles for the
president and his party in a year of midterm congressional elections.
With the war still raging, and the public growing increasingly sour over
the outlook, Bush's approval ratings have plummeted. The once-positive images
of the president and his party, which controls both houses of Congress, have
been shredded in the wake of controversies ranging from the Dubai port deal to
the response to Hurricane Katrina to lobbying scandals.
The president last week took to the stump to plead with Americans about
the necessity for resolve in Iraq. But a tour through congressional districts
of California's Inland Empire and northern San Diego County --
Republican-dominated districts that have voted twice for the president --
found surprisingly strong doubts about the president and his war policies.
While many conservative voters who spoke with The Chronicle remain
supportive of America's military men and women, an increasing number are
disillusioned with the nation's leader. And from the VFW halls to the local
cafes, an increasing number in the region are expressing a profound concern
about the human and financial costs of the continued Iraq conflict.
Oceanside's homes and businesses support the 60,000 military personnel and
civilians who work at Camp Pendleton, home to the I Marine Expeditionary Force
and the 1st Marine Division. At GI Joe's Military Surplus, just up the street
from Dalbey's barbershop, owner Robert Anderson shares the pessimistic
sentiments about the war. Another self-described conservative Republican who
voted for Bush twice, Anderson is a military booster who sells "camo" pants and
offers uniform dry cleaning for his Marine clientele. He shakes his head when
asked about Iraq.
"We've done what we needed to do,'' he said. "We could spend 10 years
there and get the same thing. ... It doesn't matter, it won't change. These
guys have been fighting each other for generations, and they're going to hate
us no matter what.''
In nearby San Marcos, Herb Ranquist, 77, a retired Navy veteran perched on
a stool in the local VFW hall, is equally perturbed, saying, "If we're going to
war, we ought to do it right. If we let the generals and admirals do the job,
we'd do OK.
"I voted for him two times, and I wish I hadn't,'' Ranquist said of the
president. "It was probably one of the worst mistakes I ever made.''
Ranquist recalls how on May 1, 2003, Bush stood on an aircraft carrier
off the coast near San Diego -- backed by a sign that said "Mission
Accomplished'' -- and proclaimed that "major combat operations in Iraq are
"I remember that,'' he said softly. "We all remember it.''
The Iraq war "did not protect us after 9/11. (Bush) was supposed to get
bin Laden,'' said Marilyn Joy Shephard, 62, of Escondido, who has been a
registered Republican since the Reagan era.
"But he wanted to go into Iraq, and I don't know why," she said. "I
absolutely don't feel safer."
Shephard, a former high school teacher and financial adviser, survived the
Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center from the 66th floor of the second
tower to be struck by a jetliner. Shephard said she ran down 66 floors and
rushed outside -- only to see a young woman who had jumped from the
skyscraper land on the ground nearby. She recalls in painful detail the sights,
sounds and smells of that attack, adding, "I even still have the 9/11 cough.''
Shephard is bitter that the president "squandered his political capital''
on a conflict that has tallied 2,300 American deaths, thousands wounded and
tens of thousands of Iraqis dead.
"It has been a wanton squandering, a waste of humanity,'' Shephard said.
"It's a national disgrace.''
Tellingly, Shephard was one of a handful of Republicans in Escondido
attending a house party for a Democrat, Francine Busby, a school board member
from Cardiff-by-the-Sea who hopes to win the solidly Republican 50th
congressional district seat vacated by GOP Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham after
his conviction on corruption charges. A special election is scheduled for April
Jerry Gould, 65, a retired pharmacist and a 40-year registered Republican
also attending the party, was angered with Cunningham, his party and his
president's performance on the war.
"I'm incredibly unhappy with the poor planning, and the thousands of
people who've gotten killed,'' Gould said. "(Bush) had no idea of an exit
strategy. They're dealing with a culture they don't understand ... and I have a
sick feeling that 20 years from now, another Saddam (Hussein) will be in power.
The guy with the biggest gun will prevail.''
Yet despite the doubts, there remains a core of Republicans in the area
who are stalwarts for the president and the Iraq mission.
One is Howard Kaloogian, a Republican candidate for the 50th congressional
district seat who said he isn't surprised that loyal Republicans are showing "a
Vietnam-like fatigue'' on the war. The media and the president are to blame, he
"He's doing excellent on the prosecution of the war,'' Kaloogian said of
Bush, "but he gets a D-minus on promotion of what we're doing there.''
Kaloogian, sitting in a local restaurant in Rancho Bernardo while he met
with supporters, said his views on Iraq come in part from his fact-finding trip
there last July with talk-show hosts and political activists.
"It's a country of 25 million and 25,000 terrorists,'' said Kaloogian, a
former California assemblyman. "People there believe it's better today than
under Saddam Hussein. ... There's no massacres (as there were) under his
killing machine,'' and Iraqis are being trained to take over the country's
security and military forces. Hospitals and schools are being built, the
economy is coming back, and riding on a humvee in the country, he recalled,
Americans are "greeted by kids like an ice cream truck.''
The Bush administration "needs to get out the message'' of the nation's
achievements there, while the media should cover such positive outcomes more,
he insisted. "People have to understand this progress takes time,'' he said.
Thomas Morrow, 52, of La Jolla -- a Vietnam veteran and a card-carrying
Republican -- agreed. "I'm not the biggest fan of Bush right now,'' mostly
because of his immigration policies, he said, but in Iraq -- while "things
aren't going as well as we'd hoped ... we're slowly getting the country back on
But the president, he said, "will not be able to resolve all the
challenges there before the end of his term.''
Back in the barber's chair at the Cut-Rite Barbershop in Oceanside, young
Lance Cpl. Kernell is not focused on public opinion. He is a Marine with a job
to do. He repairs helicopters and will leave for Iraq in July.
"You ever been over to the big sandbox?'' Dalbey said.
Kernell shook his head from side to side.
"You never know what's going to happen,'' the young Marine said. "But
we're not going to leave until it's finished.''
Dalbey finished up the precision trim -- and gave his customer a piece
"Just make sure,'' the barber said quietly, "that you hook up with
somebody who has been there before.''
© 2006 San Francisco Chronicle