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Stolen base

Politics | George W. Bush's gains in Ohio among African-American voters could spell defeat for John Kerry

Issue: "2004 Election: Countdown," Oct. 23, 2004

If Ohio, as most pundits agree, is the political bellwether for the rest of the nation, George W. Bush can only hope that Canton Centre is not the bellwether for the rest of the state.

"Look at me," said Carolyn Palmer as she watched her sons play glow-in-the-dark mini golf at the rundown shopping mall in northeastern Ohio. "It's a Wednesday afternoon and I should be working, but I can't find a job. Do I look like someone who's going to vote for Bush?"

Yolanda Carter said she comes here to keep herself occupied after the restaurant where she used to work shut down. "I don't hate Bush like a lot of my friends," she said. "I think he's a good man who shares a lot of my beliefs. But I believe in feeding my family most of all, and how am I going to do that if I don't have a job, you know? I think you've got to look out for your kids, so I'll be voting for Kerry."

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While terrorism and the war in Iraq dominate the minds of most voters across the country, here in Ohio-and throughout much of the Midwest-the top concern is jobs. According to just-released figures for August, Ohio's unemployment rate now stands at 6.3 percent, up from 3.9 percent when Mr. Bush took office. More than 235,000 jobs have been lost in the state over the past four years, most in the northeastern part of the state where a decades-long manufacturing decline seems to these voters only to have accelerated during the president's tenure.

A Chicago Tribune poll released on Oct. 13 found that 30 percent of Ohioans named jobs as the No. 1 issue facing the country, far outpacing terrorism at 18 percent. Job concerns trump terrorism in Wisconsin and Iowa, too. Only Minnesotans said they were more worried about terrorism than about jobs-but by just 1 percentage point. In none of the four states considered crucial to the president's reelection hopes did Mr. Bush break the 50 percent mark in overall job satisfaction.

Given such troubling poll numbers, John Kerry should win the Midwest in a walk. Instead, he is slipping, particularly among core constituencies like union rank-and-file and African-Americans. The Democratic candidate is garnering just 73 percent support among African-Americans, who went for Al Gore in 2000 by 90 percent. "Kerry just doesn't excite me," said Ms. Carter, a mother of three, becoming less enthusiastic about her vote the more she talks. "I don't think he understands anything about my life. I don't feel like he's talking to me."

In a last-ditch effort to shore up his base, Mr. Kerry named Jesse Jackson as a senior adviser and recruited the civil-rights leader to stump on his behalf, largely in politically active black churches.

And he is showing up at church services himself. President Bush "is willing to watch as children are cut off from after-school programs, watch as children are cut off from healthcare," Mr. Kerry told a crowd at East Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Cleveland.

But Sunday-only worship may not be enough. "John Kerry's positions on social issues are hurting him with African-American voters," said Ohio GOP spokesman Jason Mauk. "That's not to say they're flocking to President Bush, but it's clear that Sen. Kerry has yet to shore up the historic base among the community." GOP strategists believe they have eroded Mr. Kerry's support among black voters by at least 12 points-"an enormous success for the Republican Party," according to Mr. Mauk.

"The ground game is very intense," said John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron. "I live in Akron-a Democratic area-and I get a call almost every night from somebody, either a live person or a computer." Door-to-door canvassing and postal appeals also are up.

One reason the election is so close is that neither side has been able to solidify key constituencies, Mr. Green said. That means moderate Republican women living in the suburbs, for Republicans, and rank-and-file union voters, in addition to African-Americans, for Democrats. Mr. Kerry is "certainly winning" union households, he said, "but he's not winning them by the types of margins a Democratic candidate typically does."

Low enthusiasm is particularly surprising, given that voter registration is up some 250 percent in some predominantly black precincts. Mr. Mauk believes the Democrats will easily top Republicans' 200,000 newly registered voters but cautions against reading too much into the raw registration numbers. As Republicans learned the hard way in 2000, it's not registration that wins elections, but turnout. Four years ago, Mr. Bush saw his 10-point margin trimmed to just 3.5 points when get-out-the-vote efforts failed to mobilize the Republican base.

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