In Ohio, one last look at the people who will help shape an election and a nation


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The rest of the country might as well not exist. There is only Ohio, the center of our election in more ways than one.

Balanced on three corners by major cities and spun around Columbus, the Buckeye State has plenty pinned to it this campaign season: Rust Belt decay, independent-minded voters, union might, urban flight.

If you can't win Ohio, you can't win the nation, or so the conventional wisdom goes. It's why campaigns have spent millions in television, radio and billboard advertising; it's why candidates have visited a combined 492 times since June.

But Ohio also happens to be a real place, with cities and towns and people who defy expectations. Driving it, you see it is not red, it is not blue and it is not quite sure why.

Steubenville

Downtown Steubenville is a tough place to take pride in these days. Shuttered storefronts are a persistent tenant, unevictable amid paltry pickings of a video game store, a vacuum cleaner showroom and an emporium specializing in local junk.

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Torn-down blocks have opened new views to the Ohio River and the hulking RG Steel plant -- also closed, naturally. It takes a while to adjust to a city so quiet. A local waitress sighs and dreams of moving to Arizona, a place she's visited exactly once.

And yet the place softly thrums with a sort of power. In 2008, its 9,500 active voters split evenly between then-Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain, following the lead of greater Jefferson County. Mr. Obama won the town by only three dozen votes.

Both camps now have visible presences downtown: a bright Jefferson County Democrats storefront on Fourth Street, a corner office a block away that splits its window space between Romney-Ryan banners and religious posters. Residents talk of fliers tucked under windshield wipers and a never-ending march of political billboards.

In May, Vice President Joe Biden stopped by the Naples Spaghetti House, a 90-year-old Steubenville original. A print of his photo in the Herald Star newspaper now shares revered space with portraits of high school sport stars.

After 29 years watching the town's modest boom during election season and subsequent reconsignment to obscurity, waitress Cheryl Doran has grown used to playing political analyst.

Steubenville is still 50-50, just like 2008, she said. That's as obvious as the campaign signs in front yards and the gnocchi on her plate.

"You hear people say they needed change and it didn't happen. Others say they'll never vote for Mitt Romney," she said. "On one street I'll see Obama signs, on another I'll see Romney."

But she's less sure about what exactly has caused such a split in the town. Neither is city councilman David "Pokey" Lalich, who prefers to take his meetings at the Tom Horton/Coldstone Creamery franchise on the edge of town, by the suburbs. He's a Romney supporter and heavily peppers his explanations with complaints against Obama.

Industry haunts this region, he said. Many people haven't changed their way of thinking from since when they had a union job. Mr. Lalich, a former steelworker, says he has.

"We lost our steel mill, pottery, glass ... we're losing our industry here," he said. "I think people are looking for new leadership. It's all economics -- the world runs on economics."

Next door, a strip mall advertises a 22,000-square-feet vacancy. Another 15,000 is available down the street. This town could go either way.

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The longer you drive on a highway in America, the more you realize how ridiculously large our country is. You learn in school that Texas is big and California is bigger, but no one prepares you for the simple reality that even the vastness of ordinary Ohio is not easily conquered.

The campaign signs line the highway like flags on Fourth of July. Towns flit by, and you think of the candidates, chins propped on fists, watching the country from their campaign buses. Do they feel the vastness, too?

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Zanesville

Doors open at 4 p.m. at the M.A.S.S. Bingo parlor in Zanesville, a hour east of Columbus. On Wednesday night, organizers were disappointed -- only 140 people, a slow night. They blamed Halloween.

After 15 years, Chuck Griffiths has a sixth sense on where to find the numbers called on the 24 bingo sheets he plays every round. He surrounds himself with good-luck charms: A personalized bingo bag, a figurine of Jesus Christ -- and a miniature Romney campaign sign.

He isn't shy about his political preferences. Even at bingo night, he wears them on his shirt.

"I really believe we're losing 'We the People,' " he said, pounding his pen across the bingo sheets. Across the room, a woman wins $350, and everyone groans. "I truly believe that if this keeps up, we might be fighting in the street."

By the numbers, Zanesville is in just as bad shape as Steubenville. Just over 27 percent of residents live in poverty, the same as its neighbor to the east. The median household income is a little less, about $27,000. But for all its difficulties, the town has a more cheerful air -- and the area's only Japanese restaurant.

Mitt Romney visited this town of 26,000 in August, stopping by Tom's Ice Cream Bowl for a scoop of "White House." (It's cherry vanilla, owner Bill Sullivan said.) Mr. Biden made a speech at an elementary school a month later. This county leans Republican, voting for John McCain by a few percentage points in 2008.

Despite the interest from candidates, voter turnout in Zanesville is still only average -- about 65 percent in 2008, under the Ohio average.

Judy Lynn, seated next to Mr. Griffiths, said she hasn't voted since 2000. Keith Wickham, helping out at The Muffler Store down the street, hasn't cast a ballot since Ross Perot in 1992 -- and maybe not even then.

"I just don't believe in them," he said. "I don't think it matters. They do what they want to do."

At night, the grime and boarded-up windows fade away, and Zanesville is transformed into a wholly charming, if sleepy, small town. The courthouse casts a gentle glow over downtown. And at bingo, Mr. Griffiths endures some good-natured ribbing over his armchair analysis.

"It used to be Ohio was a Republican state. I don't know why it changed," he said. "I sure hope it is this election."

He voted for Obama in 2008.

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Facts grow like weeds around campaigns. Even a reporter whose business is facts finds too many to count, casually slid across tables for inspection during conversation, awkwardly handed back.

Did Romney send jobs to China? Did Obama refuse to salute the flag? Does Romney really care about small businesses, or just large small businesses? Does Obama give all welfare recipients a free cell phone?

Does Romney look weird?

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Bolivar

It's pronounced BALL-i-ver, for the record; no relation to the 19th-century Venezuelan revolutionary. Just 900 or so tucked snug in a narrow band between I-77 and a long stretch of farm fields. Cleveland is 60 miles north, but not in the orbit of most who lives here.

The farmhouses outside town are cluttered with Republican yard signs, a signal things may be shifting in a county that voted for Obama in 2008.

Not diner owner Kim Grimm, who talked politics while cooking up a batch of creamed chicken salad. Her vote is Democratic and held close to her vest.

"I try not to talk about it, because they can get very touchy," she said, indicating her customers.

But she also displays the swing-state tendency to say one thing but vote another. She bemoans the state of welfare, joking that she ought to get a drug addiction for the extra government check. She pays too much for health care. She feels sick about government spending,

She's hit every Republican talking point -- and Mr. Obama is her candidate.

"I wish a president could have more than two terms," she said. "Four years isn't enough, considering what he walked into."

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The campaigns have spent $2 billion so far on this election. Plenty of it came here, buying ad space. In one commercial break near Canton, a radio station played nothing but candidate advertisements.

Until you've seen a "Coal Against Obama" sign stacked above a "Here Today, Yuan Tomorrow?" billboard, you have nothing to complain about.

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Canton

Tim Haverstock is precisely the man you want coaching your kids. A big man -- but not so big that he can't joke about it -- he has the quiet air of a college professor in gym pants.

As programming director at the J. Babe Stearn Community Center in Canton, he was among the first to hear of Biden's visit in late October. The staff draped banners over the gymnasium walls, packed in bleachers and risers, brought in 1,000 people.

The next day, a caller left Mr. Haverstock a message promising never to donate to his center again. The director shakes his head. "We have different people with very strong opinions," he said. "You should be able to debate stuff with people, but you don't have to think alike."

He's lived his whole life in Canton, a town of about 70,000 people that held 110,000 a half century ago. Its biggest claim to fame these days is the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

As a nonprofit, the community center takes no stance in political issues. Neither would Mr. Haverstock, who was busier Thursday keeping an eye on the pair of boys shooting hoops than talking politics.

But he offered what might be the answer to the question nagging this long journey: What makes Ohio so special? Why is it the one that hasn't picked a side?

You notice then that his eyes are blue and unblinking.

His mother was a union steward, he begins. She was also a single mother. A lot of people in Canton come from the background and share his story.

The struggles here didn't start with the Great Recession. They're old and ever-present, passed to this generation from the past like a worn heirloom.

"We've had some very tough times ... these times aren't new to us," Mr. Haverstock said. "People in Ohio have had to fight hard to keep their families going. We do pay attention and we do listen because of those reasons."

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Andrew McGill: amcgill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1497 First Published November 4, 2012 4:00 AM


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