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Last Updated: Saturday, 28 February, 2004, 16:59 GMT
Campaign column: Courting Ohio

By Tom Carver
BBC correspondent in Washington

John Kerry talking to a trade union in Ohio
It's the economy, not ideology, that counts in Ohio
Jobs. Jobs. Jobs. I have just spent three days on the campaign trail in Ohio and that is all anyone is talking about.

Ohio will be one of the key states in the presidential election, if not the key one. Some say it will be the 'Florida of 2004'.

It occupies that shrinking strip of political real estate in America known as the middle ground.

"Ohioans vote with their pocketbook," Jim Ruvolo, the former chair of Ohio's Democratic Party told me. "They are not ideological. If a president has made them feel better off, they will reward him. If not, they will punish him."

In 1988 Ohio backed the Republicans. In 1992 and 1996 it switched to Clinton. In 2000 it switched back to Bush. The state has been on the winning side nearly every time.

Republicans wane

In fact, no Republican has ever reached the White House without securing Ohio, so George Bush has got to win the state - but he has a problem.

Actually, a quarter of a million problems. That's the number of people who have lost their jobs in Ohio since Bush became president - more than any other state except Michigan - and a lot of Bush's supporters appear to be deserting him.

Mark Zimmerly was raised in a Republican family. He joined the local sheriff's department and ended up doing presidential protection for Ronald Reagan and George Bush senior, for whom he has tremendous respect.

Mark Zimmerly
Mark Zimmerly says life has got tougher since George Bush came in
He voted for George W Bush in 2000. But since then, the factory where his wife worked for eight years has closed down and he has found life increasingly tough as a travelling salesman.

"You know, Ronald Reagan once asked voters, 'Are you better off now than you were four years ago?' And I have say I am not," Mark told me.

It is not statistics that matter in a presidential race. It is how people feel. And millions of people are asking themselves Reagan's question: Do they feel better off?

The American economy may be on the rebound, but in Mark Zimmerly's hometown of Ottawa, Ohio, it doesn't feel like the recession is over.

The town's only major factory has been shuttered since November 2002 and shows no sign of reopening.

The people, mostly blue-collar Republicans, cannot relocate to find other work because of their mortgages. No-one wants to buy or rent a house in a town with no jobs.

Wars, not jobs

Democrats believe that George Bush will try to deflect attention from this problem by playing the national security card.

"He may win back some votes that way," one Ohio Democratic adviser told me.

"If you're depressed and out of work, it might make you proud to know that America is kicking ass abroad," he said.

But the Democrats will keep reminding people that George Bush is almost certain to become the first president since Herbert Hoover to see the number of jobs in America shrink during his term in office.

Both John Kerry and John Edwards have been furiously courting Ohio.

Edwards has been 20 points behind Kerry in the polls in Ohio, but he is a strong finisher. The more people see of him the more they like him
It's one of the 10 states in next week's Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses. Jobs and the economy have always been major themes in John Edwards' speeches.

Possible Bush defectors like Mark Zimmerly prefer Edwards' southern conservatism on social issues to John Kerry who they distrust as a 'Massachusetts liberal'.

However, Republicans are not allowed to vote in the Democratic primary and Edwards has been 20 points behind Kerry in the polls in Ohio, but he is a strong finisher. The more people see of him the more they like him.

If he does manage to capture this battleground state it would send shock waves through the Kerry camp and keep his campaign alive.

Previous campaign columns:

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