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."
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.
The question for Republicans is whether they can convert ambivalence toward the Kerry ticket into support for the Bush team. In a park in Ohio City, a historic, ethnically mixed neighborhood in the shadow of downtown Cleveland, a dozen or so residents gave Mr. Bush high marks for defending the country against terrorism. "Of course they'd attack us again if they could," said Maxine Anderson, a healthcare worker. "I don't know what to think about Iraq, but I know I can sleep at night without worrying someone's going to blow me up. . . . When I wake up at night, I'm usually worrying about my job, not some terrorist somewhere."
If Mr. Bush can carry Ohio and pick off just one of the other Midwestern states that went for Al Gore four years ago, it would be almost impossible for Mr. Kerry to rack up the 270 electoral votes he needs to win the White House. The fact that so much of the region is in play says a lot about the power of incumbency-but even more, perhaps, about Mr. Kerry's own weakness among a key Democratic constituency.
Wisconsin: Al Gore defied the polls four years ago to take Wisconsin by a margin of just 5,709 votes. This year, Mr. Bush is determined to maintain his slight polling edge, figuring Wisconsin is his best chance to steal a state from the Democrats' column. Milwaukee and Madison are liberal bastions, but even rural Wisconsin is less culturally conservative than farming areas in other Midwestern states. One plus for the president: The state's economy has held up relatively well despite the manufacturing downturn. Republicans were also pleased to see Ralph Nader win ballot access in Wisconsin, where he picked up nearly 95,000 votes last time around.
Minnesota: Just how liberal is Minnesota? It holds the distinction of being the only state that Ronald Reagan never managed to win. In fact, in 44 years, Minnesota has gone Republican only one time (in 1972, when Richard Nixon won). Al Gore won by 2.5 points in 2000, but polls this year show a tie. Unions are bleeding membership as manufacturing declines, and young, white-collar families in the suburbs of Minneapolis tend to be more conservative. That explains why Minnesotans elected a Republican senator and governor in 2002-and why Mr. Kerry might become the first Democratic loser here in more than 30 years.
Iowa: The day after his second debate, President Bush headed to Iowa, a state Al Gore carried by just one-third of 1 percent in 2000. The White House is encouraged by polls showing a dead heat in Iowa, where no Republican has won a presidential contest since 1984. That's forcing Mr. Kerry to spend heavily in a state he might be expected to win handily.
Missouri: In a state where nearly half of all voters identify themselves as evangelical Christians, social issues have helped to nudge 11 electoral votes toward the Bush column. Catholic Archbishop Raymond Burke said he would deny communion to Mr. Kerry because of his position on abortion, and Missouri voters just last month voted to ban gay marriage by a better than 2-to-1 margin. Thanks in part to such conservative social values, Mr. Kerry has pulled his advertising from one of the swingiest states in the country.
Michigan: Though John Kerry leads by 2 points in Michigan's latest polls, that's down considerably from the double-digit lead he enjoyed throughout most of the summer. Still, the odds against Mr. Bush remain formidable: Union members and inner-city black voters tend to be very liberal, while suburban Republicans are more moderate than the White House on many issues. Many churches are mobilizing a get-out-the-vote effort in opposition to same-sex marriage-an issue that may boost the president's numbers.
-with reporting by John Dawson