Bush and Kerry campaigns vie for Ohio votes

/ Source: msnbc.com staff and news service reports

In a close election year, Ohio and its 20 electoral votes have taken center stage as one of the closest big states in play.

Quite simply, the Bush and Kerry campaigns are obsessed with Ohio. It’s an obsession that’s rooted in centuries old experience: No Republican has been elected without carrying the state.

In 2000, George W. Bush beat Al Gore in Ohio by only less than four percentage points in 2000, even though Gore had pulled out of the state in the campaign’s final weeks.

Ohio is GOP-friendly: 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 Sen. John Kerry.

Growing voter concerns
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 are also growing voter concerns about Iraq and the economy, only compounded by the state’s dwindling manufacturing job base.

Timken Steel based in Canton, Ohio, which is threatening to close. This will put 1,300 workers on the unemployment line. For more than a hundred years, Timken meant prosperity. The last three Republican presidents visited Timken, and Timken’s CEO raised $600,000 for George Bush last year alone. But now, Timken is the poster child for a troubled local economy.

Republicans, however, point to places like Kraft Maid, where there are 900 new jobs building kitchen cabinets, needed for a booming housing market, fueled by low interest rates.

Aggressive ground war
Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, who represents Cleveland, says she’s fighting hard for Kerry.  “Whenever I’m out, I’m campaigning,” she says. “There’s not a place I don’t go in my area, and I’m going to take John Kerry with me.”

If Ohio is the ultimate battleground, the congresswoman may find herself in the title bout against Jo Ann Davidson. Both Jones and Davidson can be very persuasive, and neither one intends to lose.

Davidson, despite her grandmotherly appearance, is a political pit bull. She’s the former speaker of the Ohio house and is organizing arguably the most sophisticated ground game politics has ever seen.

Her organization structure is complex, with precinct captains, neighborhood captains, county chairs, steering committees, regional chairs, and nationwide steering committees.

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

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

MSNBC's Chris Jansing and David Shuster, and Reuters contributed to this report.

Chris Jansing has traveled all over Battleground America in the past couple of months to talk to undecided Americans in big cities and little towns, and to look at the grassroots efforts being conducted there.