Kerry courts Ohio

On convention's eve, the Democrat takes one final swing through a crucial battleground state.

Published July 26, 2004 1:28PM (EDT)

Even the hostess had her doubts when John Kerry came calling yesterday, settling in at the cream-coloured home with the striped lawn furniture and welcoming the neighbours for a friendly chat.

By rights, this should be Mr Kerry's breakthrough week, as he makes his way across the US to Boston and the Democratic convention, where he is to be anointed as the party's candidate on Thursday. Mr Kerry needs Americans to be watching when he steps into the spotlight, and he needs them to like him. If he is to have a chance of winning November's elections, he needs to connect, and he knows it.

This sliver of north Columbus, where the neighbours spent the weekend mowing their lawns and planting small American flags next to the zinnias, is an electoral ground zero. Its importance to November's elections is underlined by the enormous resources devoted to its capture by both parties, with record spending on advertising and campaign workers, and intense voter registration efforts. Mr Kerry is to return to the state with his running mate, John Edwards, immediately after the convention.

The Democratic challenger made some headway, playing bashful admirer to the astronaut and local icon John Glenn, toting babies, and asking detailed questions about job flight, healthcare costs, small business loans and religious intolerance. In the small crowd seated at picnic tables, a few middle-aged women started murmuring their approval.

Ohio is the classic swing state, siding with the victorious candidate in every presidential election since 1964. It is tantalisingly within reach of the Democrats. In 2000, Al Gore lost here by less than 4%  and he had all but abandoned his campaign a month before the vote, diverting his resources to Florida.

Mr Kerry's destination yesterday is especially volatile. A relatively modest suburb, the vinyl-sided houses were intended as starter homes for young couples who hoped to do better and move on. Many never did. In the last presidential election, George Bush took the racially diverse working class ward by 12 votes out of 4,806 cast, a margin of 0.25%.

The Democrats are going to have to fight for this territory vote by vote  a reality brought home by the Republicans who heckled his arrival. A relaxed Mr Kerry joked about the "voice of democracy".

But despite the struggle ahead, the Democrats believe Ohio is more naturally receptive to Mr Kerry's economic message on job losses, with plants closing, factories shedding unionised jobs and young people leaving the state. In Glenshaw Place, the cul-de-sac that Mr Kerry visited yesterday, one family  the Montgomerys  have a mother out of work and a son who spent 15 months in the army in Iraq.

Another family is Hispanic, and two are African-American, including Jesse and Janet Aikens, Mr Kerry's hosts. The Aikens are solid Democrats. A mother of five who has spent the past 24 years working night shifts at an old people's home, Ms Aikens cares deeply about healthcare, education and homelessness.

"Years ago, blue-collar workers had to worry about jobs,  and now, when white-collar workers worry about jobs, you know the nation is in trouble," she says.

She likes what she knows of Mr Kerry's character. "You can see the honesty in him," she says. She also likes his credentials on the question of security. "I would like to see more peace talk going on than going in with guns pulled." Always a Democratic supporter, Ms Aikens is even more committed this year, still angry about the large numbers of African-American voters who were struck off the rolls in the 2000 elections. Two of her sons are reluctant voters; she is going to do all in her power this year to get them to the polls.

"I think it's a fireball," she says. "You are going to get more people out to vote than ever before. This election has got it all."

But even she has doubts about Mr Kerry. "I want to talk to him about abortion and gay rights. I certainly don't want to send us back to Sodom and Gomorrah, which is where our nation is heading, I do believe," she says before his arrival.

That is a worry for Mr Kerry as he takes his message to the American heartland  and one frankly acknowledged by Demo cratic party organisers. To win here, he has to pump up voter turnout, especially among African-Americans, who overwhelmingly vote Democrat. But he also has to convince swing voters that he is not the snooty New Englander with the let-it-be approach to morality that they have seen in the Republican attack ads on TV. In Ohio, there is no better arena for making that argument than the front porch.

The tactic was invented in 1896 by a candidate facing similar challenges to Mr Kerry. The Republican William McKinley refused to campaign head-to-head against a charismatic Democratic foe, instead running for the presidency from his front porch in Canton, Ohio.

By election day, some 750,000 visitors had traipsed across McKinley's lawn to hear him, and came away persuaded that the cautious politician possessed human warmth after all. McKinley won.

Mr Kerry will have to go some distance to follow in his footsteps, at least as far as the Montgomerys are concerned. Their votes change with the seasons, Rita Montgomery says, and this year  despite the excitement among partisan voters  is no different. "Right now I don't know which way I am going to go," she says. "I am kind of torn."

Ms Montgomery lost her job last April, sent home with no warning two hours into her shift at an insurance firm. Her only choices now, she says, are to stay on unemployment insurance until it runs out, or take a job at a fast-food chain, which will pay even less.

Before Mr Kerry's arrival, she had a sour view of his claim to be the Ohio everyman. "I don't mean to dog him, but they cannot even have a clue of how we live," she says. "I don't know how they can say they know what our life is like, because they don't. They have never lived it."

Ms Montgomery does not blame Mr Bush for Ohio's slow economic collapse, or for the war, although she is mortally afraid that her son could be sent back to Iraq. He returned to Germany this month after spending 15 months in Baghdad  a time when Ms Montgomery says her heart stopped with every headline from Iraq.

But she does not hold Mr Bush accountable for her distress  "9/11 could have happened at any time," she says. "You can't blame Bush. We had to do what we had to do."

Not everyone in the neighbourhood is so forgiving  and that is where Mr Kerry's future lies, in winning over the blue-collar workers who now believe that Mr Bush has gone too far. There's a good prospect just a few doors down from Ms Aikens's cul de sac.

Mike Parks, an air conditioning technician, is a lifelong Republican from a family of Republicans. To the horror of his wife, he has decided to switch sides.

There was no single deciding factor. Mr Parks is as angry about corporate scandal as he is about the war. He has just had enough. "I am just repulsed by Bush," he says.

"It's not that Kerry is so great. I just can't stand Bush any more."

By Suzanne Goldenberg

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