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Kerry unable to connect with Ohio voters

From Thursday's Globe and Mail

Columbus, Ohio — John Craig readily admits that George W. Bush relied on some pretty bad advice when he ordered the invasion of Iraq.

Yet Mr. Craig, a 61-year-old financial consultant, was willing to overlook those qualms on Tuesday to give Mr. Bush a second term in the White House.

"The best man won," Mr. Craig said enthusiastically as he walked past the Greek revival statehouse in downtown Columbus yesterday. "Americans voted with their hearts."

Democrat John Kerry's central campaign refrain — "wrong war, wrong place, wrong time" — was directed squarely at people like Mr. Craig, who said he has "great concerns" about what's going on in Iraq. He's a moderate Republican. He also worries that his son, who's in the U.S. Army, may have to return to Iraq for a second tour of duty.

But like a majority of Americans, in Ohio and elsewhere, Mr. Craig was apparently willing to cut the President some slack when he went to the polls.

"The man was dealt the worst blow any president could have when he came into office," Mr. Craig explained, referring to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. "He's done the best job anyone could have done in that position."

Ruth Yorston, a 40-year-old administrative assistant, also considers herself a moderate. Like a majority of voters in recession-weary Ohio, she identified the economy and jobs, along with Iraq, as the main issues in the election.

Yet she, too, was willing to overlook Mr. Bush's economic stewardship, under which the state has continued to shed jobs while better times have spread elsewhere. With more time, Ohio's economy will eventually come around, she said confidently.

"Bush is trying hard to take the country in the direction it should be going," said Ms. Yorston, who lives in the Columbus suburb of Grove City. "I appreciate his steady leadership."

The sluggish economy ought to have been a political gold mine for Mr. Kerry here. Over the past four years, this industrial state has lost 230,000 jobs and its jobless rate has shot up to 5.9 per cent from 3.9 per cent.

Sum up the Kerry campaign, and it was about Iraq and jobs. If there was any part of the country that should have been receptive to those themes, it was Ohio.

Instead, the electoral landscape today looks nearly identical to 2000, in spite of everything that has since happened: 9/11, Iraq and the recession.

"We see the same cleavages in Ohio that were there in 2000," said Joseph White, director of the Center for Policy Studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. "The country is divided in exactly the same way."

Mr. Kerry, like Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore in 2000, failed to connect with apparently receptive voters such as Mr. Craig and Ms. Yorston.

"Just as Gore wasn't able to capitalize on [former president] Bill Clinton's economic successes, Kerry didn't say what Bush has done to make the economy worse," Prof. White said. "He failed to articulate a better plan."

To turn those voters around, Mr. Kerry needed to persuade them that Mr. Bush was out of the mainstream, Prof. White argued. Instead, he allowed Mr. Bush to peg Mr. Kerry as the more radical candidate.

Exit polls also showed that moral values played a role in the campaign, ranking second only to the economy in voters' minds.

Ohio, like several other states, had an initiative on the ballot endorsing a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, in what some analysts said was a calculated bid to energize the socially conservative evangelical Christian vote.

Heavy voting in many of Ohio's staunchly Republican rural counties suggests the ploy worked. The initiative passed by a margin of 61.6 per cent to 38.2 per cent.

"Listening to all the political voice-mail messages I got at home, you would have thought that Kerry was going to steal my gun, never let me go deer hunting again and that he was for gay marriage," lamented Johnnie Maier, a Democratic organizer in Stark County, one of the only counties in Ohio that picked Mr. Kerry, after voting for Mr. Bush in 2000.

Late in the campaign, Mr. Kerry tried to connect with the hunters and gun owners of the Midwest, donning fatigues and going goose hunting in Ohio. Mr. Bush mocked the effort as a cheap political stunt.

"Kerry waited until the Republicans had defined him before telling them who he was," Mr. Maier complained. "Bush wraps himself in the flag and the Bible, and that plays well with a lot of people."

And, of course, there was the rain that drenched millions of Ohio voters as they waited in line at polling stations Tuesday, some for several hours.

The conventional wisdom among Republican organizers is that poorer black voters, many of whom rely on public transit to get to the polls, are more likely to stay at home when the weather is bad, potentially lowering Democratic turnout.

Mr. Craig, the Columbus financial consultant, said he hopes Mr. Bush doesn't regard his re-election as carte blanche to repeat things like the invasion of Iraq.

"I hope the President makes sure in his second term that he's getting the right information from his advisers about what's going on in the world," he said.

Apparently, Mr. Craig's less hawkish world view isn't shared by all. Overhead, a small plane was pulling a banner with a not-so-subtle message for Mr. Kerry and his coalition-building stand on foreign policy.

"Go back to France," the banner urged.

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