THE REPUBLICANS and the Democrats bombarded this pleasant corner of northwest Ohio for the same reason President Bush invaded Iraq -- because they could.
With a relatively cheap TV market and a Democratic-organized labor-leaning but socially conservative political culture, Toledo has been hit like no other locality in the entire, hotly contested country this year. There were probably other parts of Ohio that could have made a more persuasive case for such a huge amount of attention, but expense and convenience made Toledo irresistible.
At the end, people here had grown pretty thick skin after eight months of attention. Despite all the candidates, surrogates, commercials, and get-out-the-vote activism, they were still trying to wrestle with their conflicted feelings about a dangerous world and a fragile, wounded economy.
The result could not be more in doubt, but there is no doubt that the momentum through the final week belonged to John Kerry and John Edwards -- at least until Osama bin Laden ominously surfaced on videotape late Friday.
Nationally, the impression was that there was a weeklong argument between Kerry and Bush about the missing cache of unusually dangerous explosives in Iraq.
In fact, the Iraq narrative that unfolded here all week was much more rich and varied, illustrating a range of truths about what Jon Stewart refers to as Mess-o-Potamia. The controversy about the missing high explosives was actually the third element of the narrative to unfold. It really started last Sunday, when John Edwards hit the nearby, depressed small burg of Lima, calling attention to one of Bush's occasional bouts of candor, when he confessed in a TV interview that he could never be certain that this country can be kept entirely safe from international terrorism. It was a remark that recalled his earlier admission that "victory" in the conventional sense was probably impossible in this conflict. As Edwards noted, the problem was less in the Bush statements than in the way they clashed with the manufactured certainty that the president usually exudes.
The same day, and all through Monday, the Toledo Blade and local television were full of the macabre pictures of the massacre of unarmed Iraqi recruits. Edwards and Kerry hardly needed to remind voters that the massacre -- and the subsequent kidnapping and murder of 11 more -- underlined how short a distance the United States has traveled in 18 months in preparing Iraqis to protect themselves so that Americans don't have to do it for them.
It was in this atmosphere that the explosives story broke. The arguments about time lines and specific amounts never got rid of the story's stench and the reminder that the US invasion led to as many dangerous problems as it confronted. Edwards and Kerry were here to make sure Ohio voters got the picture.
With Bush at first silent, and not here until later in the week, the political result was to undercut the security message he was trying to convey in his TV advertising and to put the president's campaign in a defensive posture.
The Iraq story also continued to sprout new elements -- the confirmed disclosure that the price of a virtually solitary position in the country will be at least another $70 billion this year, making the total bill to date the $200 billion-plus figure Kerry had predicted; the word that 20,000 or so additional US troops will be required to provide security if Iraq's initial round of elections takes place in January; and the eruption of an ugly spitting match between US and Iraqi officials over the massacre and the missing ordnance. The entire picture could not have been more damaging to Bush's insistence that all was progressing well in Iraq. Indeed, Vice President Cheney compounded the problem by picking last week to celebrate the invasion's "remarkable success."
For two years, it has been an article of Bush faith that Iraq and the struggle with terrorism are inextricably linked. The week's news underlined how Iraq is a discrete mess of its own, both divorced from and a major distraction for the hunt for terrorists. The news also made a mockery of another article of Bush faith about the invasion, namely that it was necessary to accomplish what the international community and its inspectors could not -- preventing dangerous material from getting into dangerous hands. In the end, the invasion probably facilitated that development.
Perhaps Arnold Schwarzenegger helped the president on Friday; perhaps his final TV commercials are better than Kerry's. The fact remains that a state Bush probably has to win like all Republican presidents before him was jolted last week by the lasting truth that reality is always more important than imagery.
Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.