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Campaigns Focus on Kitchen Table Issues

CLEVELAND — Spend some time in Cleveland, and it’s easy to understand why Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) campaign here by talking about jobs, trade and other bread-and-butter economic themes.

Scores of once-elegant stores and office buildings are dark and empty. Homeless people carry blankets and bundles through slushy downtown streets, looking for shelter against the wind blowing off Lake Erie. The smokestacks of the Mittal Steel mill that winds around the Cuyahoga River cloud the air – at once a reassuring sign of resilience and a reminder of the many other factories in the region now shuttered.

“There used to be so many shops and so many people,” said Sue, a federal employee who has worked downtown for 30 years, as she ate take-out Chinese in what used to be a mall — but now serves mostly as a food-court. “It’s a dying city.”

“Everybody talks about how the country may be heading toward recession,” said Mark Salling of the Center for Community Solutions, a research group based in Cleveland. “We never came out of one. We’re still there.”

Ohio and Texas, which hold their primaries on Tuesday, have become must-win states for Clinton if she hopes to stay in the fight for the Democratic nomination. An Ohio Poll last week found that 41 percent of Democratic primary voters in the state said the economy and jobs was the issue that would most influence their decision, followed by health care and Iraq.

Clinton and Obama have clearly taken that in, each pledging to renegotiate NAFTA and toughen its labor and environmental protections, revise the tax code to better support middle-class families and work to bring jobs back to the states. Their television and radio advertisements are at a fever pitch here, and voters report getting flooded with mailers and phone calls from both candidates and their local supporters.

Sherrod Brown, the Democrat who used the same themes to win election to the Senate in 2006 – and has not endorsed a presidential candidate – says the two are striking the right chords.

“They are talking directly to middle-class voters, to working-class voters," Brown told me Monday, "about rebuilding manufacturing and trade and alternative energy and infrastructure – and the things that really will help Ohio in a big way.”

Brown has been a leading critic of recent trade deals. Even at his appearance at a suburban seniors’ center — complete with an electronic bingo board — to encourage retirees, veterans and others to file a tax return in order to get their stimulus package rebate checks, the conversation turned to trade. Brown complained that the stimulus package did not include an extension of unemployment benefits and mentioned his visit that morning to Tiffin, about 90 miles southwest of Cleveland, where an American Standard plant was recently closed. "Those are workers who are really, really struggling," Brown said.

Brown said the differences between Clinton and Obama on the issues are pretty narrow. The winner in Tuesday’s primary will be the one “who sells the public most that they have big ideas to take the economy in a different direction,” he said. “I don’t know which candidate is selling that better. They’re both doing well on that.”

But, perhaps because Ohio’s problems run so deep and have been around for so long, many Democratic voters seem unconvinced that either will be able to do much to improve conditions here.

“They talk about reviving all the time,” said Angelo Costanzo, a retired Ford maintenance worker who was at the seniors’ center, a member of the AARP’s squad of volunteer tax preparers, all clad in matching denim shirts. “But then what?”

“I don’t believe those promises to fix trade from either of them,” said a steelworker emerging from a morning meeting at his union hall, in the shadows of the Mittal plant. He declined to give his name, and said he doesn’t know who he will vote for. After working for 38 years at the mill, he said, “I need security, I need health care, and I need to make sure this job is here for somebody else.”

The United Steelworkers union had endorsed John Edwards, and many in this labor stronghold wish he were still in the race, dissatisfied that their choice has come down to Clinton and Obama.

“I think John Edwards was a candidate that working people and union people could get very excited about,” said Harriet Applegate, executive secretary of the Cleveland-area AFL-CIO, which has 120,000 members. Indeed the Ohio Poll, conducted in late February, found that 9 percent of likely primary voters said they planned to support Edwards on Tuesday. That poll found Clinton leading Obama by about 8 percentage points, a lead that has narrowed as attention has turned to the state.

“Neither one of them is telling union people what they want to hear,” said Applegate. “Neither one is that good on trade. Neither one is that good on health care.”

NAFTA was shepherded through Congress by President Bill Clinton and went into effect on his watch. Many voters are aware of this and are skeptical of Hillary Clinton’s campaign promise to revise the pact. “I think people are going to hold her accountable for what her husband did,” said Applegate.

Clinton has tried to tackle that challenge head-on in recent days. “I didn’t have a public position on it, because I was part of the administration,” she said in Tuesday’s debate with Obama in Cleveland. “But [since] I started running for the Senate, I have been a critic.”

But Applegate said Obama also has work to do to move beyond his message of hope and convince voters that he would have the independence and courage needed to provide tough, enforceable standards on NAFTA and future trade deals.

Sue, the federal worker, said she plans to vote for Clinton. “Under Bill Clinton’s administration, I felt better about the economy, and I think she would do the same,” she said. She went on to complain about the devastating local effects of NAFTA, then said, “The fact is, her husband signed it.”

“That’s why I’m voting for Obama,” said her friend, Terry, another federal worker who lives in Lorain, a hollowed out, working-class city about 20 miles west of Cleveland, where, she said, “everything’s closed.”

A Ford plant in Lorain shut its doors two years ago and Moen, the big faucet-maker, announced earlier this month that it was closing its plant in the county, eliminating 70 jobs. A U.S. Steel plant still dominates the city, curving around railroad tracks like an industrial skeleton.

Clinton and Obama have both visited Lorain in recent days.

“I have every confidence that we can turn America around, that we can turn Ohio around, that we can have the kind of future that not just young people but all people deserve,” Clinton told a packed high school gym on Tuesday, a few hours before the debate.

Obama toured a gypsum plant on Sunday, where he told workers, “If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll acknowledge that we can’t stop globalization in its tracks and that some of these jobs aren’t coming back. But what I refuse to accept is that we have to stand idly by while workers watch their jobs get shipped overseas.”

In this environment, that bit of cold reality may be as valuable as a campaign promise.

“I’m a realist,” said Jim Leonetti, an electrician who was skeptical of both candidates’ pitches and undecided about his vote. “I don’t expect to hear a magic answer.”

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