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What the Economy Means in Ohio « The Washington Independent

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/cincinnati-blight-and-renewal.jpgCininnati, Ohio (Creative Commons)

The ad for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D. N.Y.) airing in Ohio shows a woman sweeping up the floor in a closed beauty salon, a waitress collecting menus in an empty diner, and a nurse checking on sleeping patients. The voice over says, “She understands. She’s worked the night shift, too.”

Outside a General Motors plant in Janesville, Wis., Barack Obama proudly declares that he began his career “in the shadow of a closed steel mill on the South Side of Chicago,” a refrain he and his supporters cite repeatedly as the campaign moves on to Ohio.

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Politics-150x150_4420.jpg

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Welcome to the escalating battle between Clinton and Obama for working-class voters — desperately sought by both sides in Ohio’s crucial primary.

These voters mostly supported Clinton in the early contests, but they are up for grabs in Ohio, a state hit hard by manufacturing job losses and foreclosures. As the primary battle heats up, both sides are pushing their blue-collar policy credentials to win favor. Clinton bashes the North American Free Trade Agreement and contends corporations “shamelessly” turn their backs on Americans; Obama bashes Clinton’s supposed former support for NAFTA, and he pledges to crack down on lobbyists. Both recently raised the volume on their criticism of tax breaks for Wall Street hedge fund managers and other wealthy Americans.

While all this love for the problems of ordinary, hard-working Americans may play well in the short run, there are some substantial political perils to the blue-collar pandering. Trying to outdo each other on tearing down NAFTA could come back to haunt the eventual nominee, giving the ardent free trader and probable GOP nominee Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) an opening to paint any rival as too extreme. And reaching too far to portray yourself as something that you’re not can backfire — making a candidate look like a phony. Consider the former candidate John Edwards, whose strong populist rhetoric was undermined by stories of his $400 haircuts and 28,000 square foot home.

But the biggest risk can be annoying voters, especially in a state where the economy is the biggest issue and where people are looking for genuine solutions.

But the biggest risk can be annoying voters, especially in a state where the economy is the biggest issue and where people are looking for genuine solutions. There are some signs the candidates may already have gone too far. A Cleveland Plain Dealer editorial Tuesday complained that “It would be far better for Ohioans if both candidates set aside the easy applause lines and offered some solid ideas to rebuild this state’s economy.”

Diane Graham, 57, a mother of two in Dayton, Ohio, agreed. “I think they’re saying whatever they need to say to get past this primary,” she said. “I do feel bombarded.”

That bombardment is likely to continue. In Ohio, the economy remains a bigger issue than in many states. Polls show concerns over the economy and jobs ranking first among the Democratic primary voters, with health care ranking second and the Iraq war a distant third. Candidates have little choice but to play to those concerns, even if they run the risk of being seen as too extreme, said Herb Asher, a longtime political science professor at Ohio State University.

“NAFTA is to Ohio what ethanol is to Iowa,” Asher said. “Whether you call it responding to the concerns of voters or whether you see it as pandering is up to you.”

Richard Vedder, an Ohio University economics professor, falls into the latter camp. He thinks the heated campaign will incite both candidates to ratchet up their protectionist and economic rhetoric too much. “I think both Obama and Hillary are flirting with disaster here,” he said. “I have a feeling it’s going to return to haunt them in the general election.”

Vedder acknowledged Sherrod Brown’s successful 2006 Senate bid that featured an economic populist theme. But, he said, Republican scandals, a desire for change and an unpopular war also influenced that election. Democrats can look to Al Gore’s campaign in 2000 to be wary of overdoing a populist message. he said.

Gore, the son of a U.S. senator who grew up in a Washington, D.C., hotel and attended the elite St. Albans school, once described a childhood of doing chores and learning hard work on the family’s Tennessee farm. It inspired “Farmer Al,” a wicked lampoon by the late Washington Post columnist Michael Kelly, and only added to Gore’s credibility problems.

Clinton, who just lent $5 million of her own money to her campaign, and Obama, a former law professor and president of the Harvard Law Review, could open themselves up to similar ridicule if they’re not careful, Vedder warned. “These are not exactly men of the people,” he said.

A politician can’t run in Ohio without showing some support for protectionist policies, said Bill Callahan, a longtime resident and Cleveland blogger. But he also said that voters want more than that. They’re also looking for specifics from the candidates on how they’re going to tackle all the state’s economic problems, in particular the foreclosure crisis. “No matter how many people are fans of Obama’s, they’re still saying ‘You better have something real to say about this.’ You walk down the street every day here past abandoned houses. You really want your candidate to have it together on this. It’s got to be more than just a campaign speech.”

So Wednesday, after the debate, the Cleveland city council is holding a forum on fighting foreclosures, he said. Top advisers to Clinton and Obama are expected to attend, along with neighborhood groups and local officials. The organizers weren’t trying to snag either of the candidates personally, Callahan said, because they don’t want to listen to speeches. They just want the advisers to hear about Cleveland’s problems and to talk about solutions.

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