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Debate Decision: A Family Still Divided In Swing State Ohio

Tom Barnes is a 70-year-old retired grain farmer born in Ohio. He's the son of a school teacher turned farmer, and now himself the father of four, grandpa of eight.

It's clear that he adores his daughter, Becky Barnes, 30, and takes pride in describing how she's taken a piece of the big family farm south of Columbus and turned it into an organic vegetable operation by dint of hard work and sheer determination.

"It's an amazing project out there," he says. What he says distresses him, however, are her political leanings.

He's a Fox News conservative; she's an Obama Democrat. He worries that it's people like his own daughter (and maybe his wife, Karla, too, who plans to vote again for President Obama) who are "taking the country down."

Says Becky: "We try not to talk about it."

But the family, including Becky's older brother, Justin, 35, who also farms a piece of the family land, and his wife, Adrienne, 31, (both Mitt Romney supporters) agreed to let me join them to watch Vice President Joe Biden and GOP Rep. Paul Ryan spar in their only vice presidential debate.

We gathered in Williamsport, where the entrepreneurial Barnes clan — including cousins and uncles and aunts — raise corn, soybeans, wheat, organic vegetables and honeybees, and even operate a golf course (which they built).

Dinner was straight from Becky's farm. The discussion — and reaction to the debate — was equally as fresh and interesting, and as divided as the state of Ohio.

Here's what they took away from Thursday night's debate — first, general consensus, then individual reactions:

All of the Barnes' who gathered at Justin and Adrienne's home found the debate more confrontational than the presidential debate last week, and there was a mixed reaction to Biden's demeanor — his sardonic smile, head shaking, and conspiratorial looks at moderator Martha Radditz.

Becky Barnes
Liz Halloran / NPR
Becky Barnes

And no consensus winner.

"I felt everyone felt that President Obama lost his debate because he wasn't at all confrontational, and that's why Biden needed to be more aggressive — it was planned," Becky said.

Said Justin: "I think Biden came across better than Obama. And his demeanor may have been effective — the fact that the audience gets to see how he's reacting, and they might think Ryan might not be telling the truth."

Adrienne, however, thought it was off-putting: "Immature."

On the issues, no one mentioned the lengthy questions devoted to foreign policy, but the Barnes men said they would like to have heard more budget and job detail from Biden. They liked that Ryan ticked off five things the GOP ticket would do for the economy if elected.

What struck Justin, however, and others, was how the debate seemed an extension of the dysfunction in Washington.

"The bickering bothers me — and the moderator gave them a chance to answer that question," Justin said, when she asked the candidates whether they were embarrassed by the tone of the campaign. "Both of them should have apologized for it," he said. "There was no winner here. There was so much defensiveness."

About Biden, Becky said this: "I really like Biden. I don't know why I get a kick out of him. I like his grin. He looked casual and mature."

Her dad? "The Republicans will say Ryan won, and the Democrats will say Biden won. I say Ryan won, and Romney-Ryan will win in November with 328 electoral votes."

Here's more:

Becky Barnes: An English and sociology graduate from Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, she started her Dangling Carrot Farm six years ago. Health care is her big issue: "I don't know all the specifics of Obama's plan, but I agree that the government should step in and regulate it a bit," she said, adding that she thought the president did a "fine job" in last week's presidential debate.

Justin Barnes
Liz Halloran / NPR
Justin Barnes

"When they hit on the tax issue — there's a clear difference. When Biden said he wanted to tax the rich more. I think Ryan and Romney's definition of what a small business is is different. I think Obama will raise taxes on people who maybe need their taxes raised. I know all of us in the middle class are supposed to be against raising taxes, but for some social programs I'd pay more. And that's why I vote for my side — Obama would have the social programs I agree with more than Romney. It's tough when they sign Grover Norquist's no-tax pledge."

Justin Barnes: A graduate of Ohio State University with an agriculture degree, he's the father of four. His issues are "getting the economy rolling, spending and balancing the budget."

"All this discussion is about things that are kind of small, relative to the big issue of the debt. If there's a message for someone like me, and I consider myself a Republican, it's not a race issue, or a religious issue, or an abortion issue. I think both Ryan and Romney are most effective when they hammer the issue of debt. This didn't do much for me. I didn't take anything away from it. I didn't learn much either way."

Tom Barnes: Barnes taught school after graduating from Otterbein University and before going into farming. He says he's voting for Romney because "I believe in conservatism and not socialism." In his view, Romney knows how to do a budget and has a better shot at getting things done in the gridlocked nation's capital. "I'm disgusted with what's happened in Washington," he said.

"I would like to have more idea of what Biden's idea is to solve the debt crisis. I didn't hear it. I heard how Ryan/Romney will work on getting more jobs, all those five things he mentioned. I didn't hear any plan from Biden. Every time he smiled crazy, I thought, 'People aren't going to like the looks of that.' Edge to Ryan — he had a plan. I have to have people with a plan."

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Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.
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