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CAMPAIGN '08: RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE

In Ohio, it's wallets, not balance sheets

The crisis in the national economy seems remote in the battleground state, both campaigns report.

September 21, 2008|Bob Drogin | Times Staff Writer

BOARDMAN, OHIO — Calling voters every day last week for Republican John McCain's presidential campaign, Jean Centofani, a retired office worker, heard not one complaint about the upheavals that have rocked the nation's economy.

"Nope, not at all," she said. "Most people I know don't have money invested in stocks."

In nearby Canfield, Anoop Bal, an 18-year-old student, made calls every night for Democrat Barack Obama. "People are concerned about their homes and jobs, not Wall Street," he agreed.

The faltering economy is issue No. 1 in this battleground state. But lunch-bucket concerns -- falling home prices and rising fuel costs -- still overshadow the shock of federal bailouts, stock-market gyrations and turmoil in the credit markets. Economic trauma is nothing new in eastern Ohio's Rust Belt.

Both candidates have battled to convince voters that they offer the best solutions to lead an anxious nation out of the worst financial crisis in decades. But by all accounts, the tumult in Washington and New York has produced no clear political gain, or even a noticeable shift in tactics, in a state that both campaigns consider a "must-win."

With polls showing the race a dead heat in Ohio, Obama now has 70 field offices and McCain has 40.

Americans in most states rarely see presidential contestants except on TV. But no Republican has ever captured the White House without winning Ohio, as McCain reminds audiences here. And Obama is determined to deny McCain the state's 20 electoral votes.

As a result, the candidates regularly crisscross the state, while radio and TV airwaves sizzle with searing attacks and counterattacks, especially on the economy. Canvassers fan out every night and weekend to register voters and hand out leaflets. Unions and other politically active groups are flooding the state with mailings.

McCain pointedly chose Dayton as the place to introduce his running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, less than a month ago. Since then, the pair have returned to the state four times, and McCain will fly to Cleveland on Monday, marking his 19th visit to Ohio since he effectively secured his party's nomination in March.

Obama has visited nine times since spring, four since he accepted his party's nomination. His running mate, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, returned alone last week, topping off a two-day bus tour with a rally in Youngstown.

"I'm an independent," said Mike Lyons, a 75-year-old retired steelworker, who leaned against a security fence as Biden spoke. "But right now, I'm leaning towards McCain. He understands the real-world economy. He understands that you can't raise taxes."

John Groner, a 47-year-old assistant bank manager, was tilting the other way. Groner said bank customers were beginning to question whether their savings were safe, and McCain's zigzagging comments since the financial crisis erupted make him nervous.

"McCain's statement that the 'fundamentals of the economy are sound,' that was very troubling to me," he said. "If he doesn't understand the economy, how can he lead the country?"

Kim Miller, 45, who works with a financial services company, said she blamed Republicans for mismanaging the economy.

"So many people we work with are losing their homes," she said, shaking her head in dismay.

"I used to sell life insurance and health insurance. That's drying up. People say they can't afford it."

Obama's aides say that unlike Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democrats' 2004 nominee, they are campaigning aggressively in the rural Appalachian counties in the southeast and the suburban counties that ring Cincinnati in the southwest -- Republican strongholds of white, conservative families that helped put Bush over the top four years ago.

Obama has met twice with DHL workers concerned about losing their jobs at an air freight hub that the company's owners intend to close in southwest Ohio.

"Sen. Obama is much better on middle-class issues than Sen. McCain," said Michael Gillis, political communications specialist for the state AFL-CIO.

McCain's aides say, in turn, that they are making steady inroads in Democratic strongholds near Youngstown, Toledo and Cleveland by luring former supporters of New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who beat Obama in the state's Democratic primary and remains immensely popular.

"I voted for Hillary in the primary," said Judi Bryant, 44, a volunteer at the McCain phone bank. "I'd say the vast majority of my friends who voted for Hillary are now for McCain."

Many supporting the GOP ticket are so-called Reagan Democrats, blue-collar workers who view Democrats as too liberal.

Some position themselves even further to the right.

"Obama is preaching socialism," argued Clarence Smith, the Republican Party chairman in Mahoning County, which includes Youngstown. "And socialism doesn't sell."

The battle here isn't always so caustic.

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