In Ohio, election battles have cooled, but peace is uneasy

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

President Bush's reelection has already had at least one clear effect on Becky Howard's daily life: It's put an end to the fights in her beauty salon.

Situated in the middle of one of the most closely contested counties, in one of the biggest battleground states of the 2004 campaign, Ms. Howard's hair and nail shop at times last year could have run its blow dryers on the tension in the room. Some of her regular clients were strong Bush backers, while others were equally adamant in their support for Sen. John Kerry. "We had several confrontations over it," she recalls. "I had to turn the radio up."

Since then, political passions have cooled in Springfield. Yard signs have come down and attack ads no longer clog the airwaves. The only visible reminders of the campaign are tattered bumper stickers flashing by.

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But as Mr. Bush prepares this week to take his second oath of office, this working and middle class community - like much of America - remains deeply divided over the president's policies and what the next four years may bring.

Certainly, after four years of political parity, the nation's much-analyzed red-blue split now appears weighted more toward the GOP. On Nov. 2, Bush became the first president to win a majority of the popular vote since 1988 - and the first since Franklin Roosevelt to win reelection while increasing his party's margins in both houses of Congress.

But that hardly signifies an end to the partisan divide. Bush's electoral-vote margin was also the narrowest for any incumbent since Woodrow Wilson in 1916. A shift of some 60,000 votes in Ohio would have put Senator Kerry in office instead. More significant, Bush's approval ratings now rank among the lowest in history for a reelected incumbent - hovering around 50 percent.

At the same time, however, as the nation moves further away from the heat of the campaign, some analysts believe the political rift may also become less clear-cut - as it becomes less about parties and candidates than about issues.

In Ohio, voters today are no longer weighing Bush vs. Kerry, but they are still concerned about the economy, Iraq, and the cost of healthcare. The Ohio electorate may still be divided, "but it's divided within a series of issues that overlap with one another," notes John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron. "Ohioans are not completely at each other's throats, because you might disagree with your neighbor on one issue, but agree with him on another."

Many of these crosscurrents can be seen in Clark County, where Springfield is located, and which was one of the most heavily targeted counties of both campaigns. Culturally conservative but hard hit by the loss of manufacturing jobs - the county has lost more than 11 percent of its jobs since 2000 - the area went narrowly for Al Gore, and was seen by both sides as politically up for grabs in 2004. It drew national fame when, shortly before the election, the British newspaper The Guardian posted the names and addresses of county residents on its website and invited British citizens to write letters urging people here to vote for Kerry - an event locals recall as "weird," and one that, if anything, probably backfired. It was in many ways a fitting climax to a campaign that residents say gave new meaning to the word intensity, transforming Springfield into a place where neighbors stole each other's yard signs, and families wound up barely on speaking terms. In the end, the county went for Bush by virtually the same narrow margin as the state as a whole.

Perhaps not surprisingly, while Democrats here remain clearly disappointed over the outcome of the election, and Republicans are uniformly pleased, nearly everyone seems relieved to have the campaign over with.

Yet some residents here express a certain wistfulness, too, as if now that the campaign is over, the town may be forgotten. Many still remember proudly when Springfield was chosen as the subject of Newsweek's 50th anniversary issue, as emblematic of the American experience.

Now, "we'll be passed over," says Sandy Whitmore, a Kerry voter who's picking up a box of chocolate bismarks at Schuler's Bakery. "[The president] got his votes, and now he's done."

To be sure, many Democrats express bitterness about Bush's victory.

In a town dotted with boarded-up factory buildings, where industrial jobs are steadily vanishing or being replaced by low-wage jobs at fast-food restaurants, many believe the president will do little to improve the economic situation. "The poor people are going to be in a lot worse shape," says Kimberly Wilder, putting in seven loads of laundry at the Circus Plaza Laundromat. A support worker for Head Start, she says, "everyone I work with was hoping Kerry got it."

Betty Pass, a retired government worker, is more blunt: "I'm sorry [Bush] won," she says. "I'm just not impressed with him at all."

Still, Ms. Pass, who is worried about the future of Social Security and healthcare, feels the country's problems require that partisanship be put aside: "There has to be common ground," she says. The two sides "have to come together."

And a few offer a grudging show of support for the president, as their nation's leader. "It's kind of like when you have a boss, you've got to support him," says Springfield bus driver Ruth Miner, who voted for Kerry. Ms. Miner isn't happy with the situation in Iraq, and she believes that Bush's reelection will mean "the rich will get richer." But she also expresses a desire for more bipartisanship, saying she was pleased to see the recent pairing of former presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush in the tsunami aid effort. "It was just cool to see them together, actually talking," she says.

On the other hand, while Bush voters say they're glad their man won, some also criticize the president's handling of certain issues. Chaperoning their granddaughter's birthday party at the Victory Lanes bowling alley, Rodney and Jackie Allen say they voted for Bush based on his position on abortion and stem-cell research. But they strongly oppose the war in Iraq - an issue that kept them on the fence until the weekend before the election. Rodney says that while he likes Bush's "Christian values," he is "not a Bush fan."

The Iraq issue has been an ongoing point of tension between the Allens and Jackie's parents - who live next door to them and strongly support the war - despite the fact that they all voted for the president. "They know how we feel, and we know how they feel, so we just don't talk about it," she says.

Similarly, Mike Berkshire, another Bush voter who's bowling with his wife and friends, also expresses doubts about Iraq. Maybe it "had to be done, but I don't think it was a good way to go about doing it," he says. An engineer for the ethanol industry, his vote for Bush was based largely on the president's support for expanding ethanol production.

Moreover, while he may not completely agree with Bush's foreign policy, he also didn't think it made sense to "switch horses midstream" - a common sentiment here, indicating that, at least in some cases, Bush's support may have represented less an affirmation of his policies than a fear of the unknown.

It's like changing stylists in the middle of a perm, says salon owner Howard, explaining her vote for Bush. "You just don't throw somebody new in there unless it's an emergency."

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