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Campaign Crossroads

4 years later, Ohio still pivotal turf

Economy rules presidential race

President Barack Obama pauses while speaking at a campaign event at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, Ohio on June 14. President Barack Obama pauses while speaking at a campaign event at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, Ohio on June 14. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / June 19, 2012
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First in a series of stories examining key issues and voters in swing states in the presidential election.

TOLEDO, Ohio - The mammoth General Motors plant is bustling again in this Great Lakes city that is one of the rustiest in the Rust Belt. Three shifts provide jobs around the clock, and there is plenty of overtime for the 1,000 autoworkers whose jobs have been reclaimed or added since the federal bailout in 2009.

“If we had lost GM, the city of Toledo would have been a ghost town,’’ said Ruben Sauceda, 53, who has worked for the automaker for 26 years. “It would have destroyed my family.’’

But as grateful as autoworkers are for the help, the $85 billion government rescue that pulled GM and Chrysler from the brink might not be enough to guarantee President Obama the same overwhelming support he received here in 2008.

“A lot of people are leaning toward the Republicans, I think, because they feel Mr. Obama has not fulfilled what he said he could,’’ said Sauceda, a father of eight adopted children who plans to vote for the president.

The battle for Ohio has begun.

When President Obama and Mitt Romney visited Ohio on Thursday, the first time they had campaigned in the same state on the same day, they underscored how critical its 18 electoral votes will be to victory in November.

Obama pointed to the bailout as a signal difference between himself and Romney in restoring US manufacturing. Romney criticized the president for not aiding industry by striking trade deals.

“There’s no state that’s more important than Ohio,’’ said Russ Schriefer, senior strategist for the Romney campaign, which hopes to upend the state’s 2008 result, when Obama beat Senator John McCain by five percentage points.

Romney is expected to do well in rural and southern Ohio, and conventional wisdom holds that the president will dominate in the industrial north. But interviews in Toledo and its suburbs indicated that unease about Obama’s presidency extends even to the floor of an auto factory that has flourished since the bailout.

“It’s hard to square it. This is my bread and butter, but it’s not a one-issue thing for me,’’ said Bob Molloy, 57, a GM millwright who said he is against abortion, concerned about the national debt, and favors small government.

Any erosion of support in lunch-bucket Toledo could prove disastrous for Obama, who will need the 2-to-1 ratio he garnered here in 2008 to offset Romney’s strengths elsewhere. The latest compilation of polls by RealClearPolitics had Obama ahead here, 46.4 percent to 44.6.

Ray Wood, president of Local 14 of the United Auto Workers, conceded that memories can be short, even among workers who average about $60,000 annually at the GM plant across the street.

Wood, a church deacon, illustrated his task with a biblical reference: “The nation of Israel had to constantly be reminded what got it done for them. For our membership, it’s easy to forget, to become complacent, and we don’t hesitate to remind them.’’

Elsewhere in the state, observers said, the excitement that helped propel Obama four years ago appears to have waned despite a 7.3 percent unemployment rate, which is better than the US mark of 8.2 percent and has declined 10 consecutive months.

General Motors has rebounded, natural-gas drilling is expanding, and the state has added about 157,300 jobs since December, 2009.

Still, more than 400,000 Ohioans remain out of work, and Romney’s criticism of Obama’s economic policy resonates for some.

“We’re no better here than when he took office,’’ said Tom Eckhoff, 43, the night manager at Ideal Hot Dog, a favorite lunch spot among autoworkers. “I’ll be honest with you: I’m a Democrat but I’ll vote for Romney.’’

When asked specifically how Romney would improve the economy, Eckhoff said, “I don’t know, but I know we can’t afford to go down the same road.’’

The issue of race could also play a small but significant role.

Warren Charley, 46, a GM forklift operator who is black, said it will influence some white coworkers.

“I don’t say they say it directly - ‘Just won’t vote for him because he’s black’ - but they’ll give you a reason that makes no sense,’’ Charley said. “You can see right through it.’’

Paul Beck, a political science professor at Ohio State University, concurred that race will steer some voters away from Obama.

“There is still a segment of the electorate, and these are often white, working-class males, who harbor this kind of racial prejudice,’’ said Beck, who estimated that they comprise 3 to 5 percent of that group.

Such questions - of style, competency, race - underscore the president’s task, even among Democrats.

“Right now, the real challenge that Obama faces is whipping up enthusiasm in the ranks,’’ Beck said. “It’s not what you did for me yesterday; it’s what you did for me today.’’

An Obama campaign official, who asked not to be identified, disputed suggestions that enthusiasm is lagging.

According to the official, about 30 campaign offices have opened across Ohio and an entrenched grass-roots organization is already focused on November. In June 2008, by contrast, Obama and his fledgling network were still engaged in a battle for the nomination.

In the Toledo suburb of Sylvania, about 200 Obama supporters traveled to a strip mall one recent evening to open a campaign office. There, a diverse crowd ate appetizers, registered as volunteers, and chanted, “Fired up! Ready to go!’’ as team leaders delivered pep talks.

One of those leaders, Cathy Johns, said she became a volunteer after her college-age daughter developed cervical cancer and was “dropped like a hot potato’’ by the family’s insurer.

“That changed my life,’’ said Johns, a 54-year-old secretary. “I lived on a sleepy cul-de-sac and never thought I’d be involved in politics.’’

The challenge, she said, will involve a painstaking shoe-leather effort “to have conversations, one after another,’’ with neighbors, friends, and strangers to reenergize Obama’s base.

As important as Ohio is to Obama, it might be more critical to Romney, whose declaration in 2008 that the government should allow the automakers to go into bankruptcy without assistance has not been forgotten. No Republican has won the presidency without carrying the state.

“Romney is the rich guy, and the rich guy who got rich basically by downsizing plants,’’ said Beck. “For ordinary white working-class Americans, particularly males, they are very negative about the Romney types and are inclined to attribute some of their economic woes’’ to them.

Ken Hatzinikolis, 73, a retired union steward, said over lunch that Romney’s experience in private equity has not exposed him to the concerns of most workers.

“He might know the office part of it,’’ Hatzinikolis said, “but he doesn’t know what the guy on the floor is doing.’’

Romney also could be hurt by the overwhelming defeat of a statewide referendum in November to reduce bargaining rights for public unions, including police and firefighters - a ballot measure, pushed by Governor John Kasich, a Republican.

“What that did was damage the Republican brand in Ohio,’’ said Paul Sracic, chairman of the political science department at Youngstown State University. “It may be hard for Mitt Romney to come and reach out and grab those voters back.’’

That courtship, by both candidates, will last for five unpredictable months. In the end, Beck said, the decisive factor will probably be the state of the economy in early November. Until then, Beck said, “it’s up in the air.’’

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at macquarrie@globe.com.

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