Between Oil City, Pa., and Canton, Ohio, a hilly, leafy terrain gives way to a landscape as flat and appealing as warm Pepsi. Arriving in Canton on Interstate 77 you pass a Hoover plant, which has laid off more than 800 workers in the past seven months, and then a huge religious billboard asking: "Saved?" and offering a number to call.
Between them they represent the two countervailing trends that are shaping the election here -- the decline in heavy industry and the rise of holy doctrine.
Ohio is not just a swing state in this election; it is a bellwether state accustomed to picking the winner in almost every election. No Republican has ever won the White House without taking it; Democrats have done so only twice. If Ohio is a marker of the national mood, Stark County (population 377,519), in which Canton is the main town, is the best indicator of what Ohio is thinking, backing the right candidate for president every election bar one over the past 40 years.
As Ohio goes, so goes the nation; as Stark County goes, so goes Ohio.
Stark County came by its status honestly. Its 576 square miles span cornfields, steel plants, suburbs and slums. It couldn't be anywhere in America -- its plains are too plain to be anywhere other than the Midwest -- but with the exception of Latinos it has a proportionate piece of everything and everybody.
"We have this reputation by virtue of the accident that all the major demographic groups are represented here," says John Green, director of the University of Akron's Bliss Institute for Applied Politics. "It's a microcosm of the state." Of the many stops that President Bush has made to Ohio since he was elected, one stands out. In April of last year he visited a research facility for Timken, a steel and bearings factory, in Canton.
Alongside him stood "Tim" Timken, who earned a seat on the Ohio delegation at the Republican Convention this year by raising more than $200,000 for the president. "The greatest strength of the American economy is found right here, right in this room," said Bush. "I know you're optimistic about the future of this company, and I'm optimistic about the future of our country."
Almost exactly a year later, Timken announced plans to close down three of its bearings factories, putting 1,300 people out of work. In a county where unemployment stands at 10 percent and a city that has lost 3,700 jobs since Bush came to office, the news hits hard.
A woman walking out of Stark County's job center, the Employment Source, stops me without introduction. "I don't know about you but the world seems to bite you in the ass an awful lot nowadays," she says. Inside, several people have been bitten hard and keep on trying to bite back.
Gail Wilson worked in human resources until she was "job eliminated" in June 2002. Since then she has been taking temporary work whenever she can get it and learning new computer skills while her two sons tide her over. "I've lowered the bar over the years," she says. "My last job I earned more than $20 an hour, but I'm looking at $10 an hour now because I need the work. I never would have supported Bush, but now I'm telling everyone I know they've got to go for Kerry."
As well as the hardening up of soft voters, John Kerry may also be buoyed by the swell of new voters on the rolls. Democratic areas of Ohio, where registration ended last week, have seen a 250 percent rise in new voters, compared with a 25 percent increase in Republican areas. In Stark County, where Bush won by 3 percent last time, there has been a relatively modest but nonetheless significant 6 percent increase in new voters.
Yet Bush still holds a narrow lead in Stark County, beating Kerry by 46 percent to 44 percent, with 9 percent still undecided, in a poll released last week by the local newspaper the Repository.
"I'm going to vote for Bush," says a Timken worker who refused to be named. "He's screwing us with jobs, but I'm against abortion. And Bush has stepped up over the war, and I don't think Kerry would have. I can get another job. But you can't get another set of principles or another country if we get attacked again."
Chris Paxos, 26, who recently lost his job as a salesman for a small building maintenance company, says: "I'm going to vote for Bush because he believes if you make money you get to keep it. And he's for gun rights." Does Paxos have a gun? "No, but my parents do. I grew up around guns, and I think you should be able to keep them."
"You'd think people would worry more about the issues that affect their daily lives," says Stan Jasionowski, president of United Steelworkers of America Local 1123, which represents the bearings workers at Timken. "But people keep bringing up abortion, gun control and gay rights."
On Election Day, there will also be a referendum on the ballot to ban gay marriage, a ploy to mobilize the Republican base. "The economy is an important issue," says Green, of the University of Akron. "But more people have concerns premised on other things like foreign policy matters or social issues. The new voters could make a difference, but nobody knows who they are, and just because they are registered doesn't mean they will vote."
Down at 540 Eagle, one of the two gay bars in town, Bob Blackburn has just come off his shift in the steel mill, where he drives a forklift truck. He's backing Kerry, and the Republican emphasis on gay marriage doesn't surprise him. "If they don't have somebody to beat up on they're in trouble. They need an enemy, and they've decided to make us the enemy," he says.
When people lose their job, it is often injurious not just to their bank balance but to their health. With no national health service, most people's health insurance is tied to their job. "For small problems I can go to the free clinic," says temp worker Wilson. "But if I got a catastrophic illness I would be up a creek without a paddle."
"It just takes a little crisis and you're finished," says Donna Berkebile, program director of the Stark County hunger task force, which has seen a 25 percent increase in people using its services in recent years. "Your child gets sick, you take them to the doctor and there goes the food money."
Joan Iarussi has faced some major crises in the past few years, but she is nowhere near finished. On June 8 she went into Hoover one morning, as she had done for 17 years, to be told that her job as a software engineer had been terminated. Two years earlier her 52-year-old husband, a skilled steelworker, had taken early retirement as his company sought redundancies. After his company went under he found his pension was worth 20 percent of what he had been promised, after the government refused to underwrite it.
Still unable to find a job, Joan Iarussi is retraining; her husband is cutting grass at the Hoover high school for less than a third of what he earned a few years ago. "It was like a death," she says, referring to the loss of her job. "It's my job to fix it and I'm looking for a plan."
She doesn't yet know how she is going to vote. Kerry seems too wishy-washy, while Bush is too stubborn, she says. "I want to know that they have a plan in the same way I have a plan." she says. "I want my situation to improve with their plan, and I want the world to improve with their plan. My little picture of the American dream is fading pretty fast."
As often happens with those who make up their mind late, if Iarussi does not hear what she wants by Election Day she will vote against the incumbent. "I think we have given Bush a chance," she says. "I have had to reinvent myself to look for a new job. He could too."