Hard-Fought Battle in Hard-Hit Ohio

A look at what Democrats and Republicans of Lake County, Ohio did in the final weekend of campaigning to get out the vote. Video by Ed O'Keefe/washingtonpost.com
By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 3, 2008

CHILLICOTHE, Ohio, Nov. 2 -- With the presidential campaigns pressing to get out the vote in the race's final hours, no state is being more fiercely contested than Ohio, which provided President Bush with his decisive margin of victory four years ago.

Both tickets sought to rally their supporters Sunday, with Sen. Barack Obama holding events in Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the GOP vice presidential nominee, closed out the race's last weekend with events in Canton and other cities across the state.

Both sides expect a close finish, something of a paradox in a struggling state in a year in which the poor economy is driving support for Obama and other Democrats. Ohio lost 300,000 manufacturing jobs this decade and its median income has dropped by 3 percent, yet polls show Obama with no more than a narrow lead in a state that Sen. John F. Kerry lost to Bush by two points.

That may be because the weak economy has driven away younger and college-educated residents who lean Democratic, because abortion remains a potent issue and because an African American candidate with an unusual name remains a tough sell in some corners. But voters also say the poor economy has not swung more voters to Obama precisely because the state has been down for so long -- many have come to see the woes as systemic, and not easily blamed on a particular party.

Obama has mounted an ambitious effort to correct the mistakes of Kerry's campaign, which boosted turnout in cities but lost the state by ceding exurban counties and rural areas. Obama has scattered dozens of offices and scores of paid organizers across central, southern and western Ohio, hoping to find enough pockets of support to put him over the top.

The Republicans aim to counter that approach with the formidable network of volunteers and reliable GOP voters built by strategist Karl Rove, which has been enhanced by high-tech telephone systems that allow supporters to place more calls than in the past. In the party's strongest areas, the exurbs of Cincinnati and Columbus, offices are packed with veterans of 2004 -- nearly all women, many of them antiabortion activists wearing lipstick pins in honor of Palin.

Elsewhere, though, are signs that Democrats have the organizational edge. In polling in Ohio, more voters report being contacted by Obama's campaign, which has 89 offices to Sen. John McCain's 46. With its operation organized into 24 regions and hundreds of "neighborhood teams," the Democrats are better prepared than in 2004 to absorb out-of-state volunteers.

Here in Chillicothe, in a county in south-central Ohio that Bush won by 10 points in 2004, Republicans have focused mainly on distributing yard signs, a much bigger priority for McCain statewide than it is for Obama. Unlike in 2004, Republicans in Chillicothe have made do without a paid organizer and did little canvassing until this past weekend.

"We're talking to more people by letting them walk through our door than by canvassing," said Bill Jenkins, a retired corrections officer who is helping to lead the campaign in town. "If they're coming through the door, we know it's going to be a good conversation, as opposed to going door to door and having people say, 'Get off my porch.' "

The Democrats have been more active. To close the gap, Tammy Simkins has spent weeks recruiting volunteers, knocking on doors and calling voters, her eye fixed on the number of votes she has been told her territory must produce: 1,482.

She took heart that the Obama operation had been so much more organized than the McCain one based just up Main Street. But then came word last week that Palin was visiting. Residents rushed the GOP office for tickets, providing a treasure trove of new voter names, and a crowd jammed downtown the next day to cheer Palin.

"I'm anxious," conceded Simkins, 39, a mother who recently returned to college. "We need to make sure we get all our voters to the polls."

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