In 5 Great Lakes states, some hotly contested terrain in presidential campaign

Tall, strapping, wearing a pinstriped suit, and with his head shaved like Mr. Clean, Tim Misny stood in a parking lot and declared a winner in the presidential election. Misny’s a personal injury lawyer. He’s famous for TV ads with the slogan “I’ll make them pay!” He’s not the type of person who’s afraid to express an opinion.

“Nothing to discuss. Nothing to discuss. Obama’s got it,” he said.

He made a grand pronouncement: “You are standing in the exact spot where the election is going to be determined.” He explained that Ohio is the crucial swing state, and Cleveland is the key to Ohio, and “this exact intersection, St. Clair and 55th” is the heart of Cleveland.

“People don’t have to watch any television commercials to know that unless you’re a millionaire, you have no business even thinking about voting for Romney. These people think Romney should run for president of the Cayman Islands,” Misny said.

This is, indeed, a Democratic city. Pundits talk about the president’s political firewall, but levee might be the more apt metaphor around here, because President Obama hopes to shore up his base in the industrial strip that formed in the 19th century along Lake Erie. Mitt Romney wants to poke a hole in that base.

Some of the most hotly contested terrain in the final weeks of the campaign is along the Great Lakes, the inland seas left behind when the ice sheet retreated 10,000 years ago, back when this campaign season began. The Romney strategists this week generated headlines with their contention that Michigan, Pennsylvania and even Minnesota are in play, in addition to Ohio and Wisconsin.

Both candidates are traveling to these states in the final days of the campaign and spending millions in advertising. The polls in these states still favor Obama, but by margins ranging from narrow to minuscule. There are many paths to 270 electoral votes, but Obama’s is nearly assured if he holds all five of these Great Lakes states (not to mention his strongholds of Illinois and New York). If Romney can win even one of these states, he has a dramatically better shot at becoming the 45th president.

The battle for the Great Lakes has affected the tone and lexicon of the presidential race. Four years ago, Sen. Obama expanded the electoral map for Democrats, winning former Republican strongholds such as Virginia, North Carolina and Colorado, and he did so in part with an appeal to suburban swing voters, people with college educations and well-paying New Economy jobs — what economists call “knowledge workers,” and members of the “creative class.”

This time, Obama is back to basics, focusing a great deal of energy on traditional Democratic voters, particularly here in the industrial north — urban minorities, union members, working-class whites, college students and older voters who remember voting for JFK or maybe even FDR.

Obama has wanted to be a transformative 21st-century president, but to get another term, he needs help from a constituency that dates to the New Deal.

Hitting certain notes

In recent interviews in cities and towns along Lake Erie, voters hit certain notes repeatedly. Romney supporters say the country can’t afford four more years of Obama. They call him incompetent and worse. Obama supporters say the president inherited an awful mess, and four years isn’t enough time to clean it up. They say Romney cares only about the rich.

Here, you find such rock-solid Obama voters as Landry Simmons, 64, a former steelworker whose job got outsourced years ago. He now drives a forklift. He’s in a union.

“I think Romney, he lost his connection to the middle class,” Simmons said. “How many people do you know got an elevator in the garage?”

But John McCourt, 70, a retired minister in the rural town of Polk, thinks the country is going broke under Obama.

“I think he’s a smart enough guy, but I don’t think he was experienced enough. He was in over his head, a little bit like Jimmy Carter,” he said.

This is a part of the country that is in a forced transition. Deindustrialization, driven by the new global economy, hit like a slow-motion hurricane. The housing crisis hammered Cleveland; long rows of houses lie abandoned after foreclosures. Cleveland, Toledo, Akron and Youngstown are on the long list of Upper Midwest manufacturing cities that lost population in the last decade, just like Detroit and Flint up in Michigan. Demographers call them “dying cities.”

So it is that people here are looking for solutions, for a better way forward, for some kind of turnaround. The candidates pitch themselves as the problem-solvers. There’s an old-fashioned, meat-and-potatoes quality to the campaigning here: The candidates talk about manufacturing, energy extraction, coal mining. Romney’s campaign has argued that Obama is anti-coal, and Obama’s campaign has argued that, no, Romney is the one who’s anti-coal.

Most of all, they talk about cars. The auto bailout is widely viewed as Obama’s special tool to keep conservative blue-collar workers from defecting to Romney, who favored letting the strapped car companies go through a managed bankruptcy. If the president or one of his surrogates go more than a few paragraphs without mentioning cars, someone has surely hacked the teleprompter.

“His administration saved this area,” University of Toledo music professor Ray Marchionni, 70, said last week at a rally where Vice President Biden spoke.

Waiting for Biden to take the stage, law student Steven Vandercoke, 22, said he was leaning toward Romney, having supported Ron Paul during the GOP primary season. “I don’t think we need more government intrusion in our lives,” he said.

When Biden took the stage, he accused Romney of being an outsourcer of jobs, and promised to protect Ohio workers: “President Obama and I will not stand back and let China break international trade laws and hurt Ohio workers.”

He mocked the Republicans: “Starting with the convention, they had what we Catholics call an epiphany. They discovered the middle class.”

Someone in the raucous audience shouted, “It just popped up!”

“It just popped up!” Biden echoed.

Undecided voters

The battle along the Great Lakes is being fought voter by voter. Rudolfo Irizarry, 51, who voted for John McCain in 2008, said he gets three or four phone calls a day from one of the campaigns. He’s undecided, he said from behind the wheel of a 1973 Gran Torino with its original Ivy Glow paint job as he pulled into a park on the shore of Lake Erie.

Irizarry, a member of the large Puerto Rican population of northern Ohio, is a disabled warehouseman, suffering from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which is in remission. He’s worried about his health care. He needs expensive chemotherapy and fears major cuts to Medicare, on which he relies.

“I’m a Republican, but I’m scared of Romney, so I just don’t know,” Irizarry said. “I’m scared of both of them as far as health care is concerned.”

Billboards have been doing much of the campaigning here, controversially so. A billboard company last week took down 30 billboards in and around Cleveland that featured a judge’s gavel and the huge words “Voter Fraud Is A Felony! Up to 31 / 2 years & $10,000 fine.” Critics said the billboards were a form of voter intimidation in predominantly African American neighborhoods.

Still standing in low-income Cleveland are billboards saying, “Voting Is a Right, Not a Crime!”

Many Ohioans voted weeks ago. Early voting started Oct. 2.

Two 18-year-old high school seniors, Jaquan Battle and Craig Soto, received permission to miss their fourth-period math class last week to cast a vote in Lorain, west of Cleveland. Both voted for Obama.

“I just heard that Romney, he wants to make us pay more,” Soto said.

“In taxes,” Battle said. “We heard how he buys small companies and makes them into big companies and ships them off to China.”

This has been a campaign with a lot of negativity, anger, enmity. Neither candidate has managed to inspire great positive passion.

Some voters who say they oppose Obama cite conspiracy theories dispensed by fringe elements of the political world. Wayne Potter, 81, playing Pot of Gold Poker at an Internet cafe in Lorain, said he received unsolicited in the mail a DVD claiming that Obama’s real father was an American communist, not a Kenyan academic, and that Obama will pursue a communist agenda in his second term. He plans to vote for Romney.

He said of Obama, “He’s got all the black vote, probably most of the Hispanic vote and apparently the women are primarily in favor of him. By the time you add all that up, it’s a very uphill battle for a white guy.” He goes on: “Eventually, the U.S. will be a second-rate power, but I’ll be dead and gone when that happens.”

Down the road, further west along the lake, Dale and Nancy Reichert, 74 and 62, respectively, went to a lakefront park to watch the sunset. They’d voted that day, by mail, for Obama. Or against Romney.

“Just things he says, and sometimes the way he acts, I just don’t trust him,” Dale Reichert said.

They do trust each other. They’re both recovering from surgery, having scheduled their procedures on the same morning in the same hospital. That’s why they voted by mail, because they knew they’d be hurting afterward and might not make it to their polling precinct. And now they huddled on a bench, watching the drama in the sky where the sun had splashed into Lake Erie.

Photography by Michael S. Williamson

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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