Battleground Ohio, hit hard economically, is up for grabs

COLUMBUS, Ohio — John McCain came armed with a history book when he traveled to Ohio this week for his first rally since his initial debate with Barack Obama.

"I know that you know," he told several thousand supporters, that no one has won the presidency without carrying Ohio since Democrat John Kennedy did it in 1960.

The history is even more compelling for McCain. No Republican has ever won the White House without carrying Ohio, and McCain would be hard pressed to make up the 20 Electoral College votes elsewhere this year.

"We must," said McCain, "and will win the state of Ohio."

Maybe. Maybe not. He certainly can't take it for granted. With early voting starting Tuesday and less than five weeks to Election Day, McCain is neck and neck with Obama in the pivotal battleground state.

Three new polls in recent days found McCain losing a little ground over the last week, but still holding a slight edge.

"It's really close," said John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron. "There may have been some movement in the past few days, but nobody has broken out ahead of the other."

One issue that might push the state one way or the other is the economy.

Ohio already was suffering more than most thanks to an ailing auto industry and the loss of manufacturing jobs.

The state's jobless rate in August hit 7.4 percent, one of the highest in the country and the highest here in nearly 16 years. The last time it was that high was October 1992, just before Democrat Bill Clinton won Ohio and defeated Republican President George H.W. Bush.

Now the national financial crisis is spreading anxiety. Even in economically diverse Columbus, people are growing edgy as they watch their 401(k)s drop and the stocks of local banks such as Cleveland-based National City, the state's largest, swing wildly.

McCain hopes the financial crisis will magnify his warnings about Obama in the minds of Ohio voters worried about their incomes and savings.

"He's always cheering for higher taxes or against tax relief. He's voted that way 94 different times," McCain said at his Ohio rally.

"Senator Obama's record of higher taxes and more spending isn't going to help 95 percent of Americans, as he likes to say: It's going to hurt 100 percent of us by growing government, slowing growth and destroying jobs."

While Obama insists that he'd actually cut taxes for most Americans and raise them only on those making more than $200,000, McCain's message gets through to many voters.

Obama "says he's going to tax the rich. I'm middle class, but by the time he gets his way, he'll say I'm rich," said Paul Belgen, a salesman from the Columbus suburb of Gahanna.

"I'm afraid of all the taxes," said Muffy Parsons, a homemaker from Columbus.

Obama hopes anxious voters will want to change course and send a new party — and him — to the White House. That's a strong argument to voters weary of Republican rule in the White House for nearly eight years, unhappy with the war in Iraq and eager to change the country's course.

"He's young and fresh and has new ideas," said Jami Oliver, a Columbus attorney.

She thinks that Obama would help win back respect for the U.S. around the world, expand health care, cut taxes on the middle class and raise corporate taxes.


"He lets the corporations off the hook," Oliver said. "I don't trust him. He's involved with all those lobbyists. I hate to use the term 'bought and paid for,' but that's the impression I get."

"We need someone new," said Elizabeth Walker, a college student from the Columbus suburb of Upper Arlington. "It feels like we're watching the world fall apart. I want the economy to come back. Obama has this power to get people to listen."


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