COLUMBUS, Ohio — Barack Obama looked scary. On darkening South High Street, the cardboard cutout of the president, grinning in a dark suit with folded arms, stared out from the shabby house’s window like a Halloween decoration. Hardly anyone walked up to inspect the more welcoming message taped to the house’s wooden door. “Please Come In,” it said. Below that, a red, white and blue sticker added, “Ohio Votes Early. Register to Vote Here.”
The last thing the Obama campaign wants to do is scare people away. Inside this, one of their myriad campaign offices throughout the state, scattered signs promoted “Early Voting in Person!” and a “Get Out the Vote Leadership Manual” sat on a desk under a handmade banner that read “Canvassing.” In the next room, a whiteboard reminded volunteers of “weeks to go” and kept track of their calls made, doors knocked, voters registered. On a recent evening, two college-age volunteers hovered over their laptops. The one wearing chunky hipster glasses did data entry. The one in torn skinny jeans cut labels reading “Not just for some of us.” They didn’t seem the ideal people to reach the “us” — white, blue-collar, swing voters — who will probably determine the election between Obama and Mitt Romney.
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The last month has been a period of hysterics in the presidential race. First there was the Democratic high and the certainty that Romney was dead in the water. Then came the disaster in Denver that convinced many Obama supporters that all was lost. Swing states swung from the left to the right. The president’s supporters took to rending their garments, and Romney worked lines into his stump speech contrasting a disappearing Obama campaign to his own surging. (“A crescendo!” he says.) In the middle of all this sits grizzled working-class Ohio.
And it appears largely unmoved.
The two campaigns are doing everything in their power to move the state, which has leaned, almost stubbornly, for Obama. Democrats and Republicans are arguing about when and where people can vote and have poured in resources. In Columbus, where the American Federation of Labor, the forerunner to the modern labor movement, was founded, union leaders are organizing their troops for Obama and reminding all those dependent on the auto industry that the president fought to save it. The Obama campaign is sending in a dynamic duo of Middle Class Heroes, Bill Clinton and Bruce Springsteen. On Romney’s behalf, Rob Portman, the state’s star senator and Romney confidant, has appeared outside his family’s Golden Lamb, the oldest hotel in Ohio, urging conservatives in the south of the state. “Would you please vote early?” he asked as Romney stood at his side, his palms flat against his thighs.
Some people back on South High Street, a long and broad artery connecting Columbus’ scrappy working-class neighborhoods to its corporate downtown to its boutique and restaurant-dotted college district, have already cast their votes.
At the foot of the ramp leading to the 104 South expressway below Southland sits Dan’s Drive In (Classic All-American Diner) , where locals trickled in for the gravy-doused roast beef and potatoes. Jerald Fridley, an 80-year-old retired truck driver, took a seat by the window across from his wife, Phyllis, a 72-year-old retired worker in a Columbia public school cafeteria, and discussed the $6.95 specials. As for the presidential candidates, they had already decided.