A year after the close Ohio vote gave President Bush his second term in the White House, I came back to the capital of this battleground state last week as part of a team of Post reporters interviewing voters in various areas of the country.
Before heading to my precincts, I stopped by the office of a prominent Republican I had known for many years and asked him what he thought I would hear about Bush that afternoon. His answer was succinct: "It's lucky he's not on the ballot this year."
Public and private polls confirm that, as usual, Ohio is an accurate barometer of the national political trends. Bush has slumped badly here, as he has across the country. Ohio adds its own twists to the national story. Some sectors of the economy have shown improvement in the past year. But a series of financial scandals has hit the dominant GOP, and embattled Republican Gov. Bob Taft is suffering from pathetically low approval ratings after admitting that he was slow in reporting free golf outings and other favors from lobbyists. Democrats, who have lost every statewide contest in recent years, sense an opportunity for a comeback in next year's races for governor and senator.
But the dominant factor in the changed political climate -- identified by my Republican friend and confirmed by the voter interviews -- is the war in Iraq. He reminded me that nine Marines from a Columbus-based unit had been ambushed and killed in a single attack in August and that five other Marines from the Cleveland suburb of Brook Park had met a similar fate earlier that same week.
Those deaths are much more personal -- and the wounds much deeper -- than the damage to the president's support that has been caused by any of the more recent controversies roiling the waters in Washington. The ups and downs of Bush's various Supreme Court choices, John Roberts, Harriet Miers and Samuel Alito, have prompted little curiosity among the voters I met.
The plight of Hurricane Katrina's victims does stir their sympathy, but these voters have little patience for trying to sort out the responsibility for the mess in New Orleans among all the officials -- local, state and national -- involved.
As for the indictment of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Cheney's main man, for allegedly lying to the grand jury investigating the "outing" of Valerie Plame, it might as well be happening on another planet. More often than not, voters say they know something of what has happened, but as they start to describe their reactions, they find themselves saying that they are not sure who was doing what -- or why. Except for an occasional Democratic partisan, I found no one who was upset with Bush for the actions in his official family -- or for the president's silence on the subject up through the time these interviews were being conducted.
But the war is something else. The Republican friend, who is a true Bush loyalist, said he feared that Iraq is splitting this country in a fashion all too familiar from the days of the Vietnam War.
"The opponents of the war are increasingly vocal," he said, "and they want the troops out now, and to hell with the consequences."
But, he said, "I'm also hearing more voices on the other side saying: Let's go in with guns blazing and win this thing, once and for all, so we can get out. People are saying, 'We've got to tell the Sunnis to clean out the insurgents -- or else.' I've heard people say we ought to surround those Sunni villages where the fighters are hiding, give them 24 hours to get out and then level every building, so they can't come back."
"What people can't stand," he said, "is this unending story of two or three more Americans dying every day -- and nothing to show that the end is in sight."
Far more than anything else, the voices in Columbus suggest that the president's biggest problem -- and therefore the Republicans' biggest worry -- is the unresolved and uncertain struggle in Iraq. Bring it to some sort of satisfactory conclusion, and all the other issues confronting the administration at home and abroad probably become manageable. But let it drag on for another year of deaths and frustrations, and you are really tempting the fates.