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“You don’t live in Cleveland, You live in Cincinnati!”

Cleveland–Here’s the deal with being from Ohio. Whenever I meet someone who’s been through the state, they always say they have relatives in Cleveland. I always answer that I’m from southwest Ohio, from Oxford. They then ask if I’m an Indians fan — and it takes every ounce of self-control not to deck them.

People’s responses to Ohio and its geography explain why candidates–specifically Democrats– don’t understand it. I was born and raised in southwest Ohio, reared on the Reds and Bengals, on the burritos at Skyline Chili and two scoops at Grater’s Ice Cream. I come from a part of a state where people don’t throw batteries during football games, a place ruled by common civility exemplified in 1989 when then-Bengals coach Sam Wyche grabbed a microphone during a game to tell fans to stop throwing snowballs because, “You don’t live in Cleveland, you live in Cincinnati.”

Maybe both Wyche and I were going too far. But the truth of the matter is this state, as I’ve written before, is larger and more complex than most politicians give it credit for. Unlike say, Indiana or Illinois, Ohio is anchored by three cities–Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati– and each has completely different demographics. As a kid, I remember going to Columbus once. Before today, I might have been been to Cleveland a total of five times — and none of those visits happened after age 10. Rest assured, I want to go to St. Paul….NOW.

It’s important that people realize this election is about Ohio, and its economic and social diversity. Here in the north, you have cities dying, literally, as the rust belt economy worsens. In my part of the state, you have farmers and white-collar social conservatives, who’ve felt burned by the Bush administration but are wary of voting for a Democrat for president. At its center, for which Columbus serves as beacon, people are actually caught in the middle. This is where one finds swing votes and, in turn, victory.

Despite Sen. Barack Obama’s 50-state strategy, he’s gonna have to spend a lot of time here. My advice to both candidates is to skip the chili and dying factories and woo Columbus. Stock up on Ohio State football gear, learn the words to the school’s official rock song “Hang on Sloopy” and hope for the best.

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