By JAMES DAO
Published: July 4, 2004
Article originally published at http://www.nytimes.com/2004/07/04/politics/campaign/04STAT.html
ORTSMOUTH, Ohio - It is tempting to view Ohio politics as a bipolar clash: liberal Northeast versus conservative Southwest, industrial Cleveland against white-collar Cincinnati. But this year's presidential race may come down to people like Robert Burton in the gently rolling, easily overlooked hills of southeastern Ohio.
Here, Appalachia meets the Midwest along the Ohio River, which carves a muddy border with Kentucky and West Virginia. The region is part New Deal Democrat, part Ronald Reagan Republican. The people are gimlet-eyed about politicians, fickle about political parties and adept at picking winners, from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush.
Mr. Burton captures the temperament. An electrician, his business has been hurt by textile and steel plant closings. He nearly spits in disgust that a Wal-Mart Super Center will soon replace a coke processing plant, exuding the kind of burning resentment Senator John Kerry's campaign hopes to exploit.
"The best business around here is the U-Haul business," Mr. Burton, 36, said recently.
Yet for all his frustration about Republican stewardship of the economy, Mr. Burton is equally dismayed by the Democrats' support for abortion rights, gun control and welfare programs. Asked whom he plans to vote for, he says he is leaning toward President Bush.
But he is far from sure.
"I'm a Republican until it comes to economic policy," he said. "Then I'm in no man's land. And there are a lot more people like me."
Mr. Burton helps explain why the Kerry campaign has high hopes for Ohio - and why it still faces high hurdles in trying to win it. Victory here could be pivotal: no Republican has won the presidency without carrying Ohio. No surprise, then, that Mr. Bush has visited the state 18 times since 2001.
"I don't see how the president wins without carrying Ohio," Gov. Bob Taft, a Republican, said.
But Democratic victory will also require convincing fence straddlers like Mr. Burton that Mr. Kerry has the right character, experience and message to run the country. So far, polls and interviews show, Mr. Kerry has yet to do that, despite having spent about $7 million in the state. (Labor unions and private groups opposing Mr. Bush have spent about $6 million more.)
In dozens of conversations across the state, many voters asserted that they knew little about Mr. Kerry, or did not like what they had heard about him. Many support his economic policies but distrust him as a Northeastern liberal. Some expressed unease about changing leaders in a time of war and terrorism.
And others had clearly been influenced by the $9 million in advertising, much of it attacking Mr. Kerry's character, that the Bush campaign has already broadcast in the state.
"I think Kerry's too negative," said Mark Allbaugh, 39, a fifth-grade teacher from Dennison in eastern Ohio. "I haven't seen a whole lot in him that I like."
But Mr. Allbaugh remains undecided. He disapproves of the American military occupation of Iraq, dislikes President Bush's signature education program, No Child Left Behind, and believes the administration has mishandled the economy.
"I'm not really fond of either candidate," he said. "I thought Bush was down to earth, told you what he thought, like a normal person. But once he got into office, he changed."
Such skepticism helps explain why Ohio has been a presidential bellwether for decades - and is perhaps the most closely watched swing state this year.
Sometimes called the state of presidents, having produced seven of them, Ohio has voted with the winner in every national election since 1960. In 2000, Mr. Bush won Ohio by less than 4 points, after Vice President Al Gore pulled his advertising just weeks before the election, believing he was trailing by 10 points.
Recent polls indicate the race will be tight again. Several surveys earlier in the year showed Mr. Kerry with a slim margin. A more recent poll in The Cleveland Plain Dealer had Mr. Bush with a 47 percent to 41 percent lead.
Eric Rademacher, co-director of the Ohio Poll at the University of Cincinnati, said Ohio had closely reflected national attitudes and demographic trends for decades. The rural South, the agricultural Midwest and the industrial Great Lakes flow together here.
Labor unions, though shrinking, remain influential. So do conservative Christian groups. The Republican Party, which has dominated the state for a decade, has a history of moderation, as embodied in its senators, George V. Voinovich and Mike DeWine.
But this year, Ohio could be different in one crucial way, Mr. Rademacher said: its economy was harder hit by the downturn than most states and has been slower to recover.
Since 2001, the state has lost 200,000 jobs. It is ranked among the bottom states in personal income growth and retaining college graduates. And though there are signs of new job growth, the 5.6 percent unemployment rate in May was still well above the 4 percent of December 2000.
"The real challenge for both Bush and Kerry is convincing Ohioans that they have an economic plan that will put the state back on track," Mr. Rademacher said.
The lagging economy has energized Democrats, who have maintained a laser-like focus on the issue. Mr. Kerry has been in the state eight times since wrapping up the nomination in March, usually to talk about the economy.
"It will all boil down to jobs," said Dennis L. White, the chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. "Try sending your kid to college working at a Taco Bell."
For months, union workers and canvassers from private liberal groups, like America Coming Together and MoveOn.org, have been going door to door across the state registering new voters and criticizing Mr. Bush's policies, like lifting tariffs on imported steel.
Democrats are hoping their efforts will generate a huge turnout of angry and anxious voters determined to oust Mr. Bush. One of their targets has been Stark County, a swing county surrounding Canton in the northeast, which was rocked by the recent announcement that the Timken Company would be closing three plants and laying off 1,300 workers. The company, whose founding family are major contributors to the Republican Party, has been an economic mainstay in Stark County for nearly a century.
Dave Drummond, 48, is a line supervisor at a Timken bearing plant in Canton who expects to lose his job. He did not vote in 2000. But his union, the United Steelworkers of America, registered him this year and there is little doubt about how he will vote.
"Bush is out the door," he said. "Kerry, some of his views are good, some are bad. I just want him for the change."
Republicans argue that the economy is stabilizing and that voters will focus on national security and character issues. Both play to Mr. Bush's strengths, they contend.
"He's had a horrible couple of months," said Mike Allen, the Hamilton County prosecutor and director of the Bush campaign in southwestern Ohio. "But the numbers show he's weathered that storm. I think it's because people trust the guy."
Still, Republicans say they are taking no chances. They have mounted their largest get-out-the-vote operation in history, recruiting more than 40,000 volunteers and organizing registration drives in Republican-leaning suburbs and rural areas. Their goal, which they say they are close to exceeding, is to add more than 100,000 pro-Bush voters to the rolls.
"The Democrats had a much better ground operation than us in 2000," said Robert T. Bennett, chairman of the state Republican Party. "That's not going to happen this year."
The Bush-Cheney operation in Brown County, one of several rapidly growing exurban counties ringing Cincinnati, exemplifies the kind of well-oiled operation the Republicans hope to replicate in dozens of other counties.
Almost weekly, Republican organizers gather in local businesses to call unregistered voters, recruit volunteers and put together lists of people who are likely to vote for President Bush among the upscale, mostly white and independent voters who have moved into their county.
"We can't win if we just get out 3,000 Republicans to the polls," said Paul Hall, chairman of the Brown County Republican Party. "We need to get 10,000 independents to counterbalance Cleveland."
In their bastions, the two parties are mostly focusing on the core issues of jobs, trade, national security, character and experience. But the race is a bit different in rural areas, like southeastern Ohio, where cultural issues are likely to play a larger role.
The National Rifle Association will be influential here, with its anti-Kerry message. But so will labor unions. Recently, the Rev. Jesse Jackson; Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America; and a host of other labor leaders rolled into Portsmouth to deliver the Democrats' central message.
"This fight is not about the right to bear arms, the right to pray in school, the right to choose," Mr. Jackson told a crowd of several hundred people gathered around a Civil War memorial to Union soldiers. "This fight is about the right to have a job."
In the rear of the crowd, Edward Shouse, 61, listened intently. The pastor of a local African-American church, he has seen his congregation fall on hard times because of layoffs. It has affected him, too: he cannot afford health insurance for his wife.
Yet he remains undecided about the election. He admires Mr. Bush's character, though he is unhappy with administration policies on Iraq and the economy. But while he is open to Mr. Kerry, there is something about the Democrat he does not quite trust.
"I haven't heard either man say the right thing yet," he said.