In the deeply divided Park View neighborhood, tucked inside the deeply divided 12,000-person Ward 62 that President Bush won by 12 votes in 2000, John F. Kerry confronted the unrest and uncertainty defining this election.
As Kerry strolled out of his armored SUV for an informal conversation with voters on Glenshaw Court, he was greeted by scores of adoring fans -- and an equal number of angry, sign-waving Republican critics. Up and down the block, there were Democratic residents on their front lawns singing the praises of his health care plan and GOP neighbors skewering his national security credentials. All of the voters were fired up, focused on the election and unusually familiar with the candidates' positions and potential soft spots.
"I think it's absolutely fabulous," Kerry said after shaking hands with a few of the Democrats, as Republicans hecklers shouted, "Flip-flop Kerry!"
"It's what America is about," the Massachusetts senator said. At least, it is what much of battleground America is about three months away from the election: deep divisions, wildly different interpretations of war and the economy, and streets, cities and states such as this one evenly split between Bush lovers and haters.
As Kerry prepares for his convention speech, more than a half-dozen voters interviewed on Glenshaw declared the neighborhood a draw; a poll in Sunday's Columbus Dispatch declared the state a draw; and Democratic and Republican pollsters everywhere are declaring the national race a draw, too. As Glenshaw goes, so goes the nation. That was the battle cry from Democratic and Republican activists hastily assembled here to show muscle. Kerry is spending more time, money and energy strategizing on ways to win here in Ohio than in virtually any other state, aides say. There are some in the Kerry camp who believe that the whoever wins Ohio, wins the election.
He began the day by worshipping at a nondenominational, mostly black church in Columbus before heading to one of the more unusual events of his candidacy. At the end of a cul-de-sac lined with single-family homes, including one with a foreclosure sign hanging in the window, Kerry pinned a microphone on his shirt, delivered a short speech and took questions from Democrats for the better part of an hour. A small group of mostly black residents stood behind him, and a larger mostly white mix of residents and party activists sat in the street on picnic tables and folding chairs in front of him.
Nearby, Republicans -- some residents, some Bush volunteers -- sought to disrupt much of the event with shouts of "four more years" and "Bush, Bush."
"I am proud to hear the voice of democracy -- sometimes they are little loud," Kerry said. "What we need to do in America is stop shouting at each other and start listening to each other." After a string of lackluster speeches to larger audiences, Kerry was at ease touting his agenda for health care, the economy and education.
"I am not here to be critical, but I am here to be comparative," Kerry said. Soon, he was criticizing Bush's health care plan and accusing the president of spending $90 million on negative ads. When asked to support this claim, David Wade, a Kerry spokesman, forwarded quotes from newspaper articles that actually undermined it. Bush has spent about $90 million on ads, but not all of them were negative, the articles said.
Kerry said a team of lawyers is looking at "each and every district" where there have been voting problems to avert a repeat of 2000. "We may or may not be bringing challenges . . . in the course of the next weeks."
But mostly, Kerry calmly and confidently answered questions. He walked into the crowd, slapped shoulders, held hands with one woman and hugged a few babies. This is the side of Kerry his aides wished more voters could see -- in sync with this audience.
Abdul Rashid, an African American Muslim, lamented how religious divisions were fanning the flames of terrorism and wondered what Kerry would do differently. Before answering, Kerry picked up Rashid's 6-month-old son, Hasim, who grabbed Kerry's face and then stubbornly tugged at the senator's microphone. Kerry playfully wrestled with the baby's hand for a few minutes, set him down, struck a sober tone and implored the crowd to read the bipartisan commission's report on the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Only then will they fully understand how the war on terror transcends traditional weaponry and warfare and touches deeply on religious and ethnic divisions worldwide, he said.
"I would have long ago reached out to the clerics, imams and mullahs, to leaders of other religions, to the true leaders of Islam to isolate radical Islamic extremists instead of having the extremists isolate the United States of America," he said.
This easily persuadable audience of supporters seemed persuaded. But a few houses down, where Bush-Cheney signs were staked in the yard and middle-aged men and women and their children chanted with fury, there was a dramatically different take on the war on terror and Kerry's ability to win it.
Peter Bricker, 43, a veteran and a proud Bush supporter, said Kerry "would weaken the country to the point it will no longer be a super power." Down the street, Steve Ward, 55, a heating and cooling specialist, contacted the Bush campaign to find out how he could help make Kerry's day miserable. Ward's chief complaint: "Democrats are bashing the president at a time of war."
Unlike the Democrats who lamented job losses at nearby Buckeye Steel, which recently filed for bankruptcy, the Republicans talked of an economy on the rise and sounded much like Bush in blaming Democrats for leaving the president with an economy in recession in 2001. Greg Lawson, 26, a Bush volunteer, hurried into the neighborhood to plant yard signs and join in the Kerry bashing. "He just doesn't stand strong on any issue," Lawson said.
After shaking hands, Kerry was rushed back to his SUV as the soundtrack to the TV show "Flipper" blared from a Republican house.