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Battleground, U.S.A.

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/10/old-bag-of-nails.jpgOld Bag of Nails, Columbus, OH (Flickr: Ubi Desperare Nescio)

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Dusk was falling in Upper Arlington, an affluent Columbus suburb, as members of the Wicked Investment Club gathered in the back dining room of Old Bag of Nails, a bar tucked into a stone strip mall. It looked like the kind of place that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin talks about when she speaks of the real America. Posters of the local high school sports teams decorate the entrance — football players with their arms fiercely crossed, field hockey leaders posing without their shoes — and the air is thick with the smell of beer and fried fish. On TV screens, ESPN and CNBC compete for patrons’ attention.

For 19 years, the Wicked Investment Club, whose members are, for the most part, retired, have met each month through bear and bull markets. They have seen the dot-com bubble come and go. More recently, the women’s group watched their portfolio — to which they each give $35 a month — drop with the failing fortunes of the rest of the nation.

Members were having dinner at the bar before their official meeting at the library across the street They were talking about what everyone talks about these days — presidential politics.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

“I’ve been over-surveyed to death,” Wicked president Cay Friedman said. “But this most recent one was just awful. I pick up the phone, and this woman, chomping on gum, asks, ‘So, Cathy, are you going to vote for Obama?’ She didn’t identify herself, and she’s calling me Cathy, not Cay or Catherine. I said, ‘Well, that’s pretty personal, why do I have to go behind the sheet and vote?’”

“Do you answer truthfully?” asked fellow Wicked member Carolyn Focht. “I just lie to send them astray.”

Later in the dinner, Molly Schmied, by far the youngest club member, asked no one in particular, “If a recession is two quarters of economic decline, then what’s a depression?”

“It’s when it’s time to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge,” Focht replied.

Similar conversations are probably taking place in similar bars, as well as at wine tastings and regular group dinners at restaurants, all over Ohio — which is the point. If ever there was a state that had earned the name battleground, it’s Ohio.

It is a state with three major markets and many mid-size ones; with a Rustbelt economy in the northeast collapsing and a nervous white-collar workforce in the southwest. It is a state where the concerns of Appalachia weigh heavy in the southeast regions and here in increasingly cold Columbus, which is a microcosm of America. Candidates find it difficult to compete in the state, for distrust of the other side reigns supreme.

The last two presidential elections were decided by close margins, and conflict is always just below the surface. When it came time to reward land to those who fought in the Revolutionary War, it was New Englanders who were given their share in north Ohio, while the south went to Virginians. During the Civil War, the north stood as a Union stronghold, while the southwest, where I spent my youth, had more than its share of Confederate sympathizers.

Here is where “Iowa meets New Jersey,” as Democratic strategist Greg Haas told me.

“Ohio is a great representation of the entire nation,” said Deidra Reese, executive director of the League of Women Voters here. “We’ve got urban areas and rural areas, very poor ones close to very affluent ones. We literally run from one end of the spectrum when it comes to the diversity of lifestyles and interests. You can’t judge and say, ‘Ohio’s going to do this. You just can’t.”

And yet both candidates must make Ohio work for them. We are less than two weeks away from perhaps the most important general election in decades, and the state remains one that either Sen. Barack Obama or Sen. John McCain could take on his road to the White House.

Four years ago, when Iraq was the No. 1 issue in the rest of the country had, polls said Ohioans put economic fears ahead of national security. While campaigning with Obama this summer, Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland remarked something like, “As goes Ohio, so goes the country.” As the rest of the country stares down economic collapse, people here may have found the one issue that can unite them — economic distress.

Obama has opened up a small lead in the state, has motivated millions to register to vote and has made inroads in traditionally Republican district. But people in this state have seen fortunes change before.

“I remember four years ago, in Upper Arlington, seeing [John] Kerry signs on lawns where I’d never seen Democratic signs before,” said homemaker Beth Taggart, as we spoke not far from the statehouse on Tuesday afternoon. “The next morning, when I heard Kerry had conceded Ohio, I was with my sister eating breakfast at Bob Evans. And I looked around and asked, ‘Who are all these people who voted for Bush?’ I felt like a stranger in a strange land, like it wasn’t even my country anymore.”

“The state is still up for grabs,” said Herb Asher, an emeritus professor of political science at Ohio State University. “Both candidates have a reasonably good organization in place. Obviously, they both have to make sure to mobilize their base. But the other thing they have to do is connect to that middle ground. They have to connect with them on what is the major issue of the day — and that is the economy. How do you tap into voter fear? Voter anger?”

These are questions that candidates must deal with in other states, of course. But Ohio, perhaps more than any other state, represents the aspirations and fears of the country; it also is a place where mistrust finds a deeper resonance.

Because of the closeness of the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, many — particularly African-Americans — accuse Republicans of conspiring to throw out, or simply ignore, votes that would have give the state to Al Gore and, four years later, to Kerry. This time around, one cannot watch local TV news more than a few minutes without seeing one of two stories: how Ohio State can beat No. 3-ranked Penn State Saturday, and how Republicans are poised to challenge the validity of ballots cast in early voting through Nov. 4.

Early Tuesday afternoon, I sat with Peg Rosenfield, the elections specialist for the League of Women Voters of Ohio, in the basement cafe of the state capitol. Rosenfield tended to shrug them off the most recent charges of voter fraud by state Republicans, instead blaming registration irregularities or stupidity — not dark complicity.

Misspellings, clerical errors, the Assn. of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, hiring workers who simply didn’t care about the integrity of the voting process — those were the real issues behind supposed registration fraud, according to Rosenfield. She and others in the league spoke about the better preparedness of poll workers — which, as a matter of full disclosure, includes my mother — and other protections.

What most concerned Rosenfield was the potential for voter suppression and intimidation — tactics used in the Jim Crow South to keep African-Americans from exercising their right to vote at the dawn of the civil-rights movement. It was supposed to be a thing of the past, viewed in black-and-white when scrolling through grainy microfiche. Instead, Rosenfield said, it is something real — beginning with lawsuits she believed were filed in part to make first-time voters uncomfortable.

That made her scared of what might possibly happen should the race narrow, as one might expect.

“What really worries me is if it’s really close in Ohio, and if the state is going to make a difference,” Rosenfield said. “If it’s close in Ohio, and neither candidate has enough votes to win in the Electoral College, it’s going to make Florida in 2000 look like a family picnic. They’re just going to descend on us. That worries me. And nobody seems to worry about it. And it’s a very real possibility.

“There’s a prayer that election board members have,” Rosenfield said. “It goes something along the lines of, ‘Dear Lord, I don’t care who wins, but let it be a landslide.’ Because if you lose a close election, the losing party always thinks they have votes taken away from them. They can’t accept that their candidate didn’t get as many votes as the other one.

“The truth is,” Rosenfield said, “there are enough checks and balances to make sure the system goes right. And because we have close elections in Ohio — from school board seats to county commissioner — we really do know how to do recounts.”

That is the last thing anyone in this state wants.

A sense of weariness hangs over Ohio, like a night that will not end. The Obama and the McCain campaigns have poured millions into the state, and the effects of all that money have begun to show up in the minds of even the young. After dinner, before the members of the Wicked Investment Club could get down to business, Molly Schmied told a story about her young son picking up a magazine with Obama’s picture on it and blurting out, “I’m Barack Obama and I approve this message.”

Following the chuckles, the group settled down to business. They looked over their portfolio, spoke about potential buys. Of all the stocks listed, only one had increased over the past month. This was not a terribly nervous bunch — one got the sense they were in it as a kind of sport — but they were concerned enough. The market had failed them, as it had millions of others like them.

Toward the end of the evening, they chose to buy shares in one company. Choosing the man to lead them from this crisis will come soon enough.

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