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Published: Sunday, 8/8/2004

Local volunteers could clinch the win in November

SPRINGFIELD, Ohio - In between covering the Democrats in Boston and the Republicans in New York, I headed home to Springfield for a family reunion and, frankly, a respite from politics 24/7.

The morning after I arrived, Sen. John Kerry and his entourage came to town to campaign. Shortly thereafter, President Bush and his entourage came to campaign a few miles away.

We're all warriors in the battleground states.

What, you may ask, is life like these days in a state that sees the presidential candidates come and go with the regularity of price changes at the corner gas station?

For one thing, people are paying attention. Normally there's a bit of interest during the conventions and then after Labor Day people get serious. This year, people already are serious about the election. True, the yard signs aren't up yet. But the Annenberg Public Policy Center was certainly right, at least in Springfield, about voters expressing far more interest in this election than they did in 2000.

Clark County, which has Springfield as the proud county seat, is one of the hot counties in the country. In 2000 it went for Al Gore, but just barely, with a margin of less than one percent of the total vote. The Democratic Party in Ohio has fallen on hard times - the governor is a Republican, the state legislature is dominated by Republicans, both senators are Republican. Yet when passersby are asked whether they are Republicans or Democrats, the split is about even, a random finding confirmed by voter registration figures.

Republicans have vowed that on Nov. 2, Clark County is going to vote Republican. Democrats are just as determined that Mr. Kerry will carry the county. Volunteers are organized with military precision.

Calls and firm suggestions rain down from national party headquarters. Rock stars are mobilized. At the conventions local party officials are treated like royalty, getting the best hotels, the most access to celebrities, an avalanche of invitations. The goal is to make party activists at the lowest level feel the burden is on them to get Mr. Kerry or Mr. Bush elected.

No Republican has ever won the White House without carrying Ohio, and that statistic has this White House worried. Mr. Bush has been steadily slipping in Ohio since 9/11, when he walked on water. Mr. Bush has a slight lead over Mr. Kerry, but statistically it's too close to call. And the reason is no mystery - a stunning loss of 200,000 jobs and the war in Iraq.

People in Ohio listening to Mr. Bush talk about how much the economy has improved shake their heads. Everybody knows somebody who has lost a good job and can't get another. An important school bond issue failed by a landslide because it would have raised taxes.

When Mr. Bush speaks about how the war in Iraq has been vital to this nation's security, doubt creeps onto faces. Springfielders are very aware that the United States has lost a full brigade's worth of men and women in Iraq. They don't feel safer in the war on terrorism and fret that the administration might be playing politics with orange and yellow alerts.

Yet, voters here still like Mr. Bush and want to believe in him. Many Democrats are far from sold on Mr. Kerry. They liked his fiery anti-Bush speech in Boston but agree he hasn't closed the deal with their undecided friends. Repeatedly, people say, "I just don't know much about him."

What galls both parties in Clark County is that despite truly awesome ground work (door-to-door campaigning, campaign mail by the ton, phone calls from real people), neither side feels any more confident about the outcome. The pool of voters who will decide election outcome here is small; many may not even have registered yet.

Also, both sides worry there could be a last-minute development that could wipe out their man - the capture of Osama bin Laden, another terrorist attack, more casualties in Iraq, higher gas prices. Mr. Bush is unlikely to get a jolt of good economic news in the next three months. For Mr. Kerry, it's unlikely that millions of voters will suddenly fall in love with him.

If another presidential visit with all the hoopla that goes with it will help fire up the base and bring in more volunteers, Mr. Bush will be on his way. If a stop at a Protestant church with 1,000 worshipers on a Sunday morning is deemed beneficial for Mr. Kerry, a Catholic, so be it. And both the Bush team and Kerry surrogates (he can't raise any money now that he's taken his $75 million in public financing, which Mr. Bush will get after his convention at the end of the month) will spend millions of dollars on campaign ads and high-tech tactics that weren't even invented a few years ago.

It is ironic that in a presidential campaign that will be the most expensive in world history, the election could come down to the passion and hard work of local volunteers in places such as Clark County, where the county fair is a big deal, where the 4-H movement started and flourishes, where potluck suppers are the coin of the realm, where being neighborly is important, where friends shame friends into registering to vote, where discussions about politics are big and lively and revolve around real issues as well as personalities.

Not just ironic, but good, the way politics was meant to be.



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