John F. Kerry decided to fly through the night to bring his economic message to this gray industrial community Friday morning, perhaps with very good reason: In the past four decades, Stark County, famous for its swing voting patterns, has picked the presidential winner all but once.
Kerry's swing, which started Wednesday in California and will end Friday night in Washington, capped a lucrative week in which he raised about $10 million.
The first Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter to visit this blue-collar county in the northeast part of the state, Kerry met with workers at a high school here to talk about their economic woes, attributed to ongoing plant closings and mounting job losses. According to the Kerry campaign, which cited Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers, the county has lost more than 12,000 jobs since 2001, and the state has lost 218,000 jobs.
"Nowhere in the country has felt it as hard as this area the way you have taken it on the chin," Kerry told several hundred people in a town hall meeting, and thousands afterward at a rally.
In May, Timken Co. -- a longtime manufacturer of bearings and steel here -- announced that it would close three factories over a labor dispute, which would cost the community tax revenue and 1,300 jobs. The announcement took on political ramifications as the Kerry campaign seized on the hardship of workers whom President Bush had touted in 2003 as an example of those benefiting from his tax cuts. The company's management has close ties to Bush.
In addition, the Hoover Co. -- a subsidiary of Maytag Corp. and a landmark business here for nearly a century -- said it would soon move to Maytag headquarters in Iowa, eliminating 500 white-collar jobs.
In a community that trends Republican, the bad economic news has created a sense of electoral uncertainty, as both campaigns battle for the state. No Republican has ever won the White House without winning Ohio -- and Bush has been here 18 times since 2000.
"I don't know where George Bush thinks the country really is today, because it's clear he's not in touch with lives of real Americans," Kerry said as he fielded questions from half a dozen workers on such issues as job losses and veterans' benefits.
Kerry pledged to create more jobs if elected by bringing outsourced jobs back home, and ending tax breaks for companies that send jobs overseas.
Ohio's unemployment rate fell from 5.8 percent to 5.6 percent last month, but Kerry said the new jobs being created pay less than the jobs that were lost. "We're here to put America back to work in good-paying jobs," he said at the rally.
"We are hurting. What I'm hearing people, conservative, religious people who usually vote a single [social] issue, rethinking that," said Bill Wright, vice president of the steelworkers union local, whose job at Timkin is in jeopardy. "What I tell them is vote your job, lobby your hobby. . . . If you have a problem with gun control or abortions, take it up. But vote to save your job."
Bush-Cheney spokesman Steve Schmidt challenged Kerry's claims on the economy, saying the senator from Massachusetts was "again talking down the fastest-growing economy in 20 years." Schmidt said, "The reality is that Ohio's economy has added 30,000 new jobs this year."
Kerry arrived in Ohio from Los Angeles, after a $5 million concert-fundraiser. Members of Hollywood's Democratic elite pulled no punches about their choice for president. Barbra Streisand brought down the house with new words to her classic "People," skewering various Bush administration officials. "Now Rumsfeld . . . we must get rid of Rumsfeld," she crooned. "He's the spookiest person in the world."
But some of the best jokes were on Kerry. "People say he doesn't smile, he's not happy enough," Billy Crystal said. "I kid him a little bit. I said, 'Listen, you're the front-runner, the polls are up, you've raised $200 million. If you're having a good time, tell your face.' "
Kerry flew to New York on Friday evening for a fundraiser at the Waldorf-Astoria with Howard Dean sponsored by New York gays and lesbians. The event raised $1.8 million, which Kerry will split with the Democratic National Committee.