Young supporters of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney join… (Justin Sullivan, Getty…)
CINCINNATI — Johanson Perez, a 29-year-old night baker at Panera Bread who is not a fan of President Obama, had a "70-comment fight" on Facebook with a friend over Donald Trump's $5-million offer for the president's school and passport records.
"I'm sure we won't be as close after the election as we were before," said Perez, who'd stopped for lunch at Price Hill Chili, a neighborhood institution on the city's west side. "It's almost like he's in a cult."
At a nearby table, political independent Greg Littel, 20, a University of Cincinnati student who favors Obama, said he was dismayed by vandalism in his liberal neighborhood.
"The political conversations have been more hostile and people have been taking that physically out on each other," Littel said. "All the cars with Romney bumper stickers have been keyed."
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Over a sandwich at the bar, Ed Miller, 79, a Republican real estate agent and former minor league shortstop, said one of his oldest friends, an Obama supporter, stopped speaking to him recently. Miller had just given the man's grandson an expensive basketball signed by University of Kentucky coach John Calipari.
"I played ball with this guy!" Miller said. "How can you be so uniformed, so ignorant, about what's going on? If Obama gets in here for four more years, our country is gone. I mean flat-out gone."
Here, in Cincinnati and its suburbs, a political bellwether region for Ohio, the election has turned into something of a civil war — minus the horses and bayonets. Republicans and Democrats alike have inundated voters with the message that the fate of the presidency is in their hands. Fights over voter identification, intimidation and fraud have dominated news coverage.
Ohioans can't turn on their TVs or pick up their phones without encountering partisan attacks. With the stakes so high, it's no surprise that many in this politically polarized state have stories about election season tension spilling over into their daily lives.
"This is a time of year you have to watch out what you say," said Lisa Storie, 52, owner of Sitwell's Coffee House in Clifton, which she called "the only place in this whole city where you are allowed to say 'I'm voting for Obama' and get away with it." For a long time, the cafe's wireless password was "Obama2008."
Storie, who has a "Friends don't let friends buy Starbucks" sign above the counter, has lost customers after unreservedly expressing her liberal views. Recently, some walked out after she noted "how absurd it was" for Republicans to advocate shrinking government.
Four years ago, a minister and his wife who for years had bought coffee every Sunday at Sitwell's stopped coming in because their sons had gone into the military and her Vietnam-era peace posters offended them. "I was shocked," Storie said. "I know you're not supposed to talk about politics if you have a business, but a coffeehouse is supposed to be a place of enlightenment."
Just recently, Storie's friend Bob, who puts signs with messages too long for bumper stickers in the window of his VW Golf, found a note on his windshield: "You filthy liberal puke. You are a liar just like your leader."
The provocation, said Bob, an insurance company retiree who asked that his last name not be published, was one of his custom signs: "We believe that women have the intelligence and morality needed to make their own decisions. Apparently, the Republican Party leadership disagrees."
Some have stopped speaking about politics altogether, for fear of offending friends, family or customers.
A few doors down from Sitwell's, Titus Nzioki sells "Obama, Dream Come True" T-shirts at his African imports store, Kilimanjaro. Nzioki said he had to hold his tongue when an older woman came into the store recently. She looked at one of his pro-Obama shirts with disgust and declared she could never vote for a Socialist.
"I would have told her, 'Actually, he is not a Socialist,'" Nzioki said. "But I can't get wordy with them about things. So I just let it slide."
Don Marshall, a retired Cincinnati Gas & Electric vice president who had just finished a late breakfast with his wife, Carol, at Price Hill Chili, said he suspected his daughter-in-law is a Democrat but won't ask.
"I was always taught don't talk religion or politics," said Marshall, 66. Still, he had an uncomfortable encounter when a friend visiting from North Carolina defended Obama's healthcare reform law. "We kind of got into it," Marshall said. "I was trying to be nice, but she said some things and I said some things."
Sitting with a cup of tea and a cookie in Sitwell's, Mariana Belvedere, 43, a psychologist in private practice, said she was surprised by the high level of manipulation on the part of the campaigns, which in turn stokes partisan intensity.
The vitriol on display in some debates and advertisements, she said, is effective. "I see people who are very energized by that," said Belvedere, who is from Buenos Aires.