DOYLESTOWN, Pa. — When the recession cost Jerry Krone his longtime accounting job several year ago, he turned to his hobby — making gourmet jam in his Fountainville kitchen. Now he's a fixture at Doylestown's weekly farmers market, selling his lilac jelly and rose petal jam for $4 and $8 a jar.
Ask him about the election, and he will tell you that neither President Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney truly understands what average families are going through. A registered Republican — but "that doesn't really mean anything," he said — the 58-year-old Krone voted for Obama in 2008, before his experience among the unemployed soured him.
Still, he is leaning toward voting for Obama again, but wants to see the president deliver a stellar performance in the remaining debates: "He can't be so wimpy. He has to stop being nice."
Across Bucks County over the weekend, people spilled into farmers markets and harvest festivals and fairs, celebrating a glorious fall day and talking about politics as well as pumpkins. More and more places in the United States are deep blue or red, but Bucks is not one of those; the county is politically eclectic, with some households divided into different political camps and plenty who say they are undecided. People were eager to discuss the aftermath of the debate and what to anticipate in the last month of the campaign.
And while jobs are a huge concern in this country north of Philadelphia, the recent unemployment numbers, which brought the jobless rate down to a level unseen since January 2009, did not impress.
"They only matter to the pundits and the politicians," said Cynthia Kopp, 56. She too lost her accounting job in the recession and so she works part-time as a supermarket cashier and comes to the farmers market each week with her soulful sidekick, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Aries, to sell $5 bags of her gourmet dog biscuits.
"If Aries could vote he would vote for Romney," Kopp said, laughing. "Because mommy needs a job and she thinks Romney is the only candidate that could help get her one."
Steeped in history — this is where Gen. George Washington crossed the Delaware River in 1776 to march on Trenton and surprise Hessian mercenaries fighting for Britain, a turning point of the American Revolution — Bucks County was once considered safely Republican. But Democratic voter registration now edges out Republicans, 185,605 to 175,196.
Neil Samuels, the executive director of the Bucks County Democratic Committee, describes this part of southeastern Pennsylvania as "a place where politics can be schizophrenic." He pointed to the borough of Doylestown. Eight years ago, he said, there were nine Republican borough members and a Republican mayor. Today, he said, there are nine Democratic borough members and a Democratic mayor.
The same shifting allegiances can be found in households around the county.
Take 41-year-old Michael Juhas of Ivyland and his wife Christine, who spent Saturday afternoon enjoying the Pumpkin festival at None Such Farm in Buckingham with two of their four children.
"Every four years everyone in Bucks County is reminded that we are the cradle of Democracy," joked Juhas, a facilities manager at Temple University. "And we proudly try to live up to it."
The couple — she is Republican, he's a Democrat — rarely talk politics at home. Juhas is scared of more cuts in subsidized student programs under Romney. Christine Juhas, 40, a hair stylist, said she was swept up by Obama's oratory and style when she voted for him in 2008, but she doesn't think he has delivered on his promise of change.
"He was such a great speaker," she said. "But we need action more than words."
Still undecided, she is leaning toward Mitt Romney after his debate performance.
Lindsay Nemec and her husband Eric, who were picking pumpkins with their 7-year-old son, Samuel, also steer clear of political talk at home.
Job security is their biggest concern, but they are divided over which candidate might be best. Nemec, of Abington, is a 35-year-old school counselor who works in Philadelphia and is worried about proposals to close or privatize dozens of schools.
"I don't want to be one of the millions of Americans who is unemployed," said Nemec, who will vote for Obama.
Her husband, who works in a Philadelphia car repair shop, said he doesn't trust politicians in general and is "firmly undecided" on his presidential pick.
He likes Romney because he seems like a "good family man" and, though he voted for Obama in 2008, he doesn't feel the president has accomplished enough. He also dislikes the health care reform, saying government shouldn't force people to buy insurance. But he believes the election is really about who can fix the economy and help the middle class. He plans to make a final decision after watching the rest of the debates.
The economy and its effect on the middle class was a constant refrain, even for those who are financially sound.
Packing up his saxophone after a morning session at the Doylestown market, Mike Siefried said the current situation reminded him of the "robber baron days of the 19th century," when a powerful elite controlled industry and politics.
A registered Democrat who used to be a Republican, the 66-year-old retired marketing executive from Doylestown will vote for Obama, because he is fearful of the Republican agenda.
He compared the economy to a house that needs fixing up.
"Republicans want to slap a coat of paint on it and make it look good," he said. "Democrats want to look at the foundation and see what it takes to make it last."
Fellow musician Rick Renz, who plays drums in their "Jazz with Friends" band, was far more skeptical about the ability of any one leader to enact real change, particularly given the congressional gridlock in Washington.
Renz, a 58-year old sales manager, said he had never felt so disheartened about his country. His two older children, ages 33 and 27, both with masters degrees, have had to move back home because they can't find jobs. And he has witnessed friends lose jobs or have their homes foreclosed on.
"I never thought I would see that in my lifetime," Renz said. "Everyone says the job numbers are good. But my two adult kids are sitting at home."
Renz says he will vote for Romney, mainly because of his disgust at how the last four years have gone.
Others said it was unfair to pin all the blame on Obama.
"I view the obstruction of Congress as treason, because it has brought the whole country down," said Ed Valenti, as he strolled down Newtown's main street, his snow white parrot, Puff Daddy, perched on his shoulder. While kids snapped photos and "Puffy" enchanted onlookers with coy calls of "hello," Valenti, a 53-year-old social worker, talked about his concerns for his clients, many with mental health and substance abuse problems. A former Republican, Valenti said he has been disillusioned by how far to the right the party has moved. And he is afraid of more cuts to social programs for the poor if Romney is elected.
Still, while Valenti will vote for Obama, he doesn't envision any real change for the country without more bipartisan efforts in Washington.
"The problems the country is facing are beyond one man," he said.