Sam Lombardi is the kind of voter John Kerry needs to win in Ohio.
Since being laid off from a telecom company a year ago, Mr. Lombardi has been working part-time at his uncle's farm stand, selling apples and taffy to motorists along Route 23. He was briefly in the hospital a few weeks back, and is trying to figure out how to pay thousands of dollars in bills without insurance.
Until recently, Lombardi was leaning toward Senator Kerry - "just looking for a change, I guess." But now he's not sure. He's not even sure he'll vote. "Seems like both of them can't really tell the truth," he shrugs.
For months, Democrats have regarded Ohio as this presidential contest's golden ring - a state that has gone with the winner every year since 1960, and without which no Republican has ever captured the White House. Four years ago, with just a few weeks left in the presidential contest, Al Gore's campaign pulled out of Ohio, a move many Democrats came to regard as a tactical error after George W. Bush won the state by a surprisingly slim margin of four percent.
Since then, the state has lost more than 230,000 jobs - and become one of the most critical battlegrounds in the nation. Both the Kerry and Bush campaigns, along with outside groups, have poured resources in, sending out unprecedented numbers of staffers and volunteers to knock on doors and register voters, and running more TV ads here than almost anywhere else.
Yet lately the Ohio landscape is looking somewhat steeper for Kerry. After months of deadlock, recent polls have shown the president pulling slightly ahead in Ohio, mirroring the national picture.
Some of the shift may reflect Bush's postconvention bounce - and, say many experts, the race here is still close. But many also say Kerry has struggled, so far, to get his economic message across. At the same time, the campaign's growing negativity is giving many voters doubts about both men - but particularly about the Massachusetts senator, who is the less familiar candidate. It also seems to be dampening enthusiasm about the election, despite a widespread view that major issues are at stake.
Munching on an ear of roasted corn at Renick's Family Market, near South Bloomfield, Becky Papp rolls her eyes at the campaign's tone. "He didn't serve in the National Guard; he didn't do that," she mimics. Ms. Papp, an undecided voter who works in the Columbus schools, is hardly a Bush fan. She's concerned about the economy, but doesn't think Kerry could do much about it, either. "If [Kerry] could bring jobs home, I'd be for him," says Papp. "But I don't think he's going to."
Ohio has long been a bellwether, with an electorate that reflects the nation as a whole. The state combines urban industrial centers with rural agricultural regions. Parts meld into the Northeast; others are authentic Appalachia, where "you can find snake handlers and fundamentalist churches and Country Western radio stations," says John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron. "Ohio really is a microcosm of the country."
Like America, it's also a state divided: The northeastern part, around Cleveland, is heavily Democratic, while the southwestern Cincinnati region is strongly Republican. But there are swing areas, too - Columbus, for one, is "a pretty good proxy for the state as a whole," says Professor Green. The Gallup polling company used to test consumer products there, he notes, because the city was seen as representative of American tastes and values.
In 2000, Franklin County, dominated by Columbus, was one of the state's closest counties, going to Gore by just 1 percent. But these days, that narrow divide - and the campaigns' furious fight for every last vote - leaves many here feeling tired.
Eating lunch with her husband and two kids at the nation's original Wendy's, in downtown Columbus, Republican Jennifer Howard is ready for the race to be over. The Democratic Party has gone door-to-door in her neighborhood; she's gotten several recorded phone calls from President Bush. The TV ads are nonstop "mudslinging."
Worst of all is the polarization: "There's no middle ground," Ms. Howard says. She sports a Bush-Cheney bumper sticker on her car, and recently, while waiting at a traffic light, she was confronted by a stranger who pulled up next to her and honked repeatedly, holding up a Kerry-Edwards sign. "Everyone is stressed," she says.
Like many Bush voters here, Howard is firm in her allegiance, though her family was hurt by the downturn: Her husband, Jeremy, lost his job with a pharmaceutical company and is still looking for work. "If we have to see our economy drop to take care of terrorism, that's worth it," she says.
But buying a burger at the counter, next to a picture of Wendy's founder Dave Thomas, Lorenzo Miller is just as firm in his fealty to Kerry. Bush "is not in touch with everything that's going on," says Mr. Miller, who works in receiving at a Kohl's department store. Although new jobs are being created, most are low paying. "That's not recovering," he says. "That's trying not to be homeless."
Analysts say it's still unclear whether the economy or national security will take precedence in most Ohio voters' minds. While the loss of jobs here has affected many, voters have also faced the terrorist threat: Not long ago, authorities uncovered a plot to blow up a Columbus mall. Local schools conduct "lockdown" drills.
"It may well be that many voters go into the voting booth feeling more positive about one candidate on the economy and the other on foreign policy," says Eric Rademacher, director of the Ohio Poll at the University of Cincinnati. That creates room for a tie-breaking issue - or, for many voters, a candidate's personal traits. "One of the things that's critically important here is the candidate's ability to connect," says Mr. Rademacher.
Republican strategists argue that Bush's qualities are a better fit with most Ohioans than Kerry's. Indeed, they say, Kerry has projected an image of elitism that is not only alienating but has contradicted his economic message. "Many more Ohioans drive pickup trucks and go fishing like George Bush than go windsurfing in Nantucket," says Mark Weaver, a GOP consultant in Columbus.
Democrats counter that, while Kerry may not have Bill Clinton's stump skills, the issues are on his side. "This state is a poster child for everything that's gone wrong with Bush's policies," says Democratic consultant Gerald Austin. "[Kerry's] challenge is to get people to hear his message and not deal with how he delivers it."
Still, some Kerry fans say he faces an uphill battle. The attacks on his Vietnam record hurt, says Miller - especially when Kerry didn't respond right away: "That made him look kind of weak." And incumbency gives Bush a powerful boost. "People want change, but then when it comes down to the vote, they're scared of it," he says.
Unemployment has been a serious issue in Circleville, a small town south of Columbus in conservative Pickaway County, known for its Pumpkin Festival. A local glass plant recently closed, laying off some 600. "That did hit us pretty hard," says Jane Lynch, a retired GE worker volunteering at the Republican headquarters. "It had been here so long, people just didn't think it would happen."
Democrats believe the economy has given them an opening in this GOP-dominated area. In the new Democratic Party headquarters, Linda Blaine says there are already 80 volunteers. "There's no jobs here," she says. Young people "have to go somewhere else - or join the military," like her son, who's in the Navy.
But often, the partisan divisions seem more cultural. Picking up a birthday cake for his daughter at Lindsey's Bakery, which bakes the "world's largest pumpkin pie" at the festival, Jeremy Bell says he's voting for Bush because an article in an NRA flier said Kerry's "against guns."
Chris Thompson, a student at Ohio University in Chillicothe, comes into the GOP headquarters to announce that he's painting a giant Bush-Cheney logo on his car. He supports the president because "he's passionate in his belief in Christ," he says.
Still, not everyone's enthusiastic about Nov. 2. "I don't think I have a really good choice," says Jeff Hardin in Gio's Pizza, watching the Ohio State game on TV.
"I'd like to see Bill Clinton back in office," adds Mick Kimmel, beside him. He plans to vote for Kerry, Mr. Hardin for Bush. But neither is enthused. "This is what's important," jokes Kimmel, pointing at the game.
Ultimately, both sides agree the race could hinge on turnout. As a result, both parties have mounted massive registration and get-out-the-vote efforts in Ohio.
"I've never seen this much grass-roots activity this early," says Professor Green. He says Democrats have probably registered more new voters than Republicans, but notes that it tends to be harder to get Democrats to the polls. Ohio's GOP apparatus is better organized than its Democratic counterpart, but Democrats have relied on outside groups such as America Coming Together to make up the difference.
The unpredictability of turnout makes it hard for pollsters to get an accurate read. But paradoxically, polling can also impact turnout - which is why, experts say, Kerry needs to whittle back Bush's apparent lead. "The ground game works best when the election is perceived to be very close," says Green.
Voter breakdown in 2000
Age 65 or older 13.3%
Uninsured adults 11.5%
Source: National Journal