Blue Sparks in Red Ohio

Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden at a rally at the College of Wooster in Ohio last month.
Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden at a rally at the College of Wooster in Ohio last month. (By Mark Duncan -- Associated Press)
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By David S. Broder
Thursday, October 23, 2008

WOOSTER, Ohio -- This is the Republican heartland, a small city filled with churches and circled by cornfields an hour south of Cleveland.

In 2000 and 2004, George Bush carried Wooster and surrounding Wayne County with more than 61 percent of the votes. The area has been represented in Congress for decades by Rep. Ralph Regula, who is retiring.

But in 2006, Democrats showed signs of reviving in Wayne County under a new chairman, B. Jean Mohr. Rep. Sherrod Brown won almost 48 percent of the county vote on his way to defeating Republican Sen. Mike DeWine. And in the race for governor, Rep. Ted Strickland actually outpolled Republican Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell by 2,316 votes here, part of a statewide landslide.

When I asked Republican state Sen. Ron Amstutz, who has represented the county since 1980, what happened, he pointed to scandals in the administration of outgoing Gov. Bob Taft and said Blackwell "was just too conservative" for his constituents. Strickland, a Protestant minister before he entered politics, "had a lot of appeal to the church people," Amstutz said.

That makes Wayne County a battleground in the latest version of the perpetual presidential election drama: Who gets Ohio? In 2004, John Kerry invested more in turning out votes in Ohio than in any other state, only to see the Bush campaign beat him in the precincts -- clinching the election.

Even after Barack Obama was soundly beaten by Hillary Clinton in the Ohio Democratic primary, losing Wayne County in the process, Democrats insisted that Ohio would be in play in November -- and Republicans said they were rising to the challenge. So I was eager to see what was happening on the ground.

I drove down to the McCain-Republican office, across from the local newspaper on a downtown street, and walked in about 2:30 after my lunch interview with Amstutz.

I was greeted by two ladies of my own generation, Judy Dichler and Roma Nicholac, who told me that the office had opened on Sept. 22 and that "this is the first Friday we've stayed open." While we visited, a half-dozen people stopped by to pick up McCain-Palin yard signs. None was asked to do anything else for the campaign.

Just as I was preparing to leave, a third woman arrived and silently began hand-gluing mailing labels to a pile of brochures.

Dichler and Nicholac, both veterans of past Republican campaigns, said things had gone slowly until McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate and Palin showed up to campaign in neighboring Stark County. "People are thrilled by her life story," Dichler said.

In a phone conversation, I had learned that Dorothy Ginther, the veteran Republican county chairwoman, was a late convert to the McCain campaign, joining him only after Rudy Giuliani, her first choice, dropped out.

But Mohr, her Democratic counterpart, had an even more tortuous journey. She started out with John Edwards, then moved to Hillary Clinton. She embraced Obama only after the Democratic convention.

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