San Diego Union Tribune

June 29, 2004

Election looks tight in Ohio

Copley News Service

JACKSON TOWNSHIP — The war in Iraq and job losses are contributing to diminished enthusiasm for President Bush in Ohio, a crucial swing state that has been a reliable indicator of the national mood.

While many Bush supporters insist they back the president as strongly as they did in 2000, when he took Ohio by 4 percentage points, interviews across the state show that others are disappointed in his first term.

Some haven’t decided whether they’ll vote this fall for Bush or the presumed Democratic nominee, John Kerry. Others say they’ll vote for Kerry.

The result is an extremely tight race.

The battle for Ohio’s 20 electoral votes offers an early view of how the race might develop elsewhere in the nation. No Republican has won the presidency without Ohio.

And since 1900, the state almost always has voted for the winning presidential candidate. The exceptions came in 1944 and 1960, when Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy each failed to carry the state.

This year, some of Bush’s Ohio supporters sound a bit desultory.

“Yeah, I’ll vote for him,” said optometrist Ted Rath, a Republican who voted for Bush four years ago. Yet like some other Bush supporters, he is less enthusiastic than he was in 2000.

“I’m not sure he’s forthright in why he’s doing what he’s doing,” said Rath, 38, who lives in Jackson Township, normally a Republican stronghold. Rath is disturbed by what has happened in Iraq.

“We have to control terrorism but we have to be up front with people. Don’t make excuses like weapons of mass destruction,” he said. Rath suspects that the real reason for invading Iraq was “to keep the cost of energy and oil under control.”

Recent polls show a tight race. Kerry led 49 percent to 43 percent in a survey conducted June 21-23 by American Research Group. A month earlier, Bush had led by a similar 6 percentage points in a Mason-Dixon poll.

Few Kerry supporters interviewed for this story expressed fervor. Many said they knew little about the Massachusetts senator. In some cases, they said their vote was more anti-Bush than pro-Kerry.

“Forty-nine percent of this is going to be getting rid of George Bush and one percent is going to be, ‘I love John Kerry,’ ” said Dan Trevas, spokesman for Kerry’s campaign in Ohio.

In addition to Iraq, voters from Lima to Dayton to Canton identified the economy and job loss as another major concern.

The state has lost more than 225,000 jobs since January 2001, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That trend reversed during the past six months. Since December 2003, almost 31,000 jobs have been created in Ohio.

Nonetheless, job growth has been slower in Ohio than in many parts of the country, and many Ohioans expressed anxiety about their jobs.

“We’re losing too many jobs,” said Audi Everett, a Canton Democrat who voted for Bush four years ago but is backing Kerry now. “I know a lot of people who have lost their jobs.”

Everett’s husband works for the Timken Co., which recently announced plans to close three of its plants. Her husband won’t be affected by the closures, but Everett said she still is concerned about the future, adding that Bush “didn’t do enough to keep jobs here.”

Like Rath and Everett, Carolyn Dick, manager of a public library, lives in Stark County. The county has acquired a national reputation as a bellwether, where the local presidential vote is almost identical to the national tally.

Dick, a Democrat, voted for Bush in 2000 but is undecided this year.

She blames the war for her change in heart.

“I was really convinced they had weapons of mass destruction and I felt we needed to do that. But gosh, hasn’t that changed,” she said.

If Monday’s transition to Iraqi rule succeeds and a timetable is set for the return of American troops, Dick said that could tip her to Bush.

Underlining the importance of Ohio is the early start that both campaigns have gotten in registering voters and organizing in the state.

The Bush campaign, which began to organize in Ohio last fall, boasts that it has filled more than 6,500 of the 12,000 precinct captain positions within the grass-roots network it is building.

“We are way ahead of where we were in the 2000 campaign in November, and here we are, in June,” said Bob Paduchik, Ohio manager for the Bush-Cheney campaign.

The campaign also has recruited more than 46,000 volunteers, he said.

Kerry didn’t open a campaign office in Ohio until March, after he effectively secured the Democratic presidential nomination.

His campaign, working out of temporary quarters in Columbus, appears to be lagging the Bush effort considerably.

Jennifer Palmieri, Kerry communications director in Ohio, would not say how many precinct captains have been recruited.

But she insists the campaign is way ahead of where previous presidential efforts were with four months to go before the election.

“What we need to do now is introduce John Kerry to voters and make the case of why they should vote for him,” she said.

Both campaigns believe that the number of undecided and swing voters in Ohio is much smaller this year than in the past.

As little as 5 percent of the electorate might be up for grabs, compared to 20 percent or more in previous elections, officials said.

Rick Farmer, political scientist at the University of Akron, believes a small number of undecided voters will decide the election. Many of them have not begun to pay attention to the campaign yet, he added.

Some Republicans who support Bush worry that Iraq could cost him the election if the direction of the war does not improve.

“I think depending on what happens with the war, that is going to swing the election one way or the other,” said Jack Somerville, a Republican precinct committeeman in Lima. “If it’s continually getting worse, we’re losing more soldiers and this new government doesn’t hold up. ... I think he could lose.”