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Ohio's diverse voters could hold key to White House

(This is the third of three campaign stories on the swing state of Ohio)
/ Source: Reuters

(This is the third of three campaign stories on the swing state of Ohio)

The voters of Ohio, on the front lines of what promises to be the biggest election battle of 2004, can expect plenty of love and attention from President George W. Bush and Democrat John Kerry this year.

From the blue-collar Democratic enclaves of the northeast to the heavily Republican southwest, across five major urban centers, sprawling suburbs, big swaths of farmland and mountainous regions of Appalachia, the state of Ohio is up for grabs in a fight that could rival Florida's importance in deciding the 2000 election.

"This state looks a lot like the nation," said Eric Rademacher, co-director of the University of Cincinnati's Ohio Poll. "And the campaign in Ohio will be in many ways a microcosm of the national election."

While Bush and Kerry have focused on about 18 key battleground states where the 2000 results were close, Ohio and its 20 electoral votes have taken center stage so far as the closest and most hard fought of the big states in play.

Polls over the last two months have shown a dead heat in a state where Bush beat Democrat Al Gore by less than four percentage points in 2000 -- even though Gore had pulled out of Ohio in the campaign's final weeks.

Since then, growing voter concerns about Iraq and the economy, compounded by the state's dwindling manufacturing job base, have cut into Bush's support in Ohio, as in the rest of the nation.

"Ohio typically looks very much like the rest of the country when it comes to public opinion," said John Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Politics at the University of Akron. "It looks like it is going to be very, very close."

No Republican has ever won the White House without winning Ohio, described in the Almanac of American Politics as "the epitome of American normalcy" and home to a demographic mix that roughly mirrors the national electorate.

The state has only picked presidential losers twice in the last century, going for Republicans Thomas Dewey in 1944 and Richard Nixon in 1960 instead of Democrats Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy, respectively.

Republicans hold every statewide office and have 50,000 more registered voters than Democrats, but Democrats say the state's struggling economic numbers have opened the door for Kerry.


Since 2000, Ohio has lost 225,000 jobs and seen its unemployment rate rise from 3.9 percent to 5.8 percent. Taxes also have jumped, with The Tax Foundation, a conservative research group in Washington, ranking it third in the nation in its tax burden on residents, up from 14th in 1999.

"There is a growing sense in Ohio that the state is going in the wrong direction, and that's bad news for Bush," said Leo Jennings, a Democratic consultant in Cleveland.

Jo Ann Davidson, a former Ohio House speaker who heads Bush's campaign in Ohio and three other states, said the state economy was turning around and residents would feel the impact before November.

She said the Bush campaign's organizational head start would provide a crucial boost. Bush has chairmen in 88 counties, more than 5,700 precinct chairs and 33,000 state volunteers. "I've never seen a ground game like this in Ohio," Davidson said.

The Kerry campaign, meanwhile, only started moving staff into the state this month, although its ground game will be augmented by labor unions and independent groups like Americans Coming Together.

ACT, which has shifted its spending to get-out-the-vote efforts, has 15 offices in Ohio and 400 paid canvassers who have registered 55,000 new state voters since last year, said Jess Goode, the group's spokesman in Ohio.

Operating out of an ACT office above a car wash in Youngstown, volunteers have talked to 35,000 potential voters in heavily Democratic Mahoning and Trumbull counties alone in the last two months and registered 8,500 new voters, supervisor Bill Padisak said.

"The ground games will probably be pretty even by October," Green said. "Both sides will be very well organized here."

Bush made the 17th visit of his presidency to Ohio on Tuesday for a health care event in the Democratic stronghold of Youngstown, and spent a day touring the western half of the state by bus earlier this month.

Kerry, who has made nine trips to the state in the last two years, also hit Youngstown late last month during a three-day bus tour to highlight job losses in the region.

"The candidates are still trying to get the lay of the land here," Rademacher said, noting that even an issue like jobs and the economy varies in different parts of the state.

"In the northeast, jobs are a huge issue, but in the southwest it's more a question of the standard of living and inflation," he said.

Bill Clinton won Ohio in 1992 and 1996 to help win the White House, and local Democrats say the prospect that Ohio could play a key role in ending Bush's presidency has excited the party's base.

"The last time there was this level of political activity among Democrats was in 1992, and that helped Clinton win," Jennings said. "I think we're in the same place now."