- The Washington Times - Friday, September 19, 2008

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio | The two presidential nominees are invading enemy territory, stalking their rival’s strongholds in battleground states, not necessarily to flip counties to their column but to reduce the margin of defeat in pivotal precincts.

The strategy for the final leg of the campaign has sent Sen. Barack Obama into the deep-red territory of the Midwest, including Cape Girardeau County, Mo., hometown of radio host Rush Limbaugh, where President Bush won 69 percent of the vote in 2004. On Wednesday, the Democrat visited the Mountain West, in Elko County, Nev., where Republicans won 78 percent of the vote four years ago.

Republican Sen. John McCain, meanwhile, has forged into the bright-blue territory of Northern Virginia, where Democrats won Fairfax County by seven percentage points in the last presidential election.

He also dropped into the Democratic stronghold of Trumbell County, Ohio, where Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry crushed Mr. Bush by 24 points, 62 percent to 38 percent, and adjacent Mahoning County, where Mr. Bush got just 37 percent of the vote.

“McCain, rightly, senses he has an opening with older, blue-collar working households to swipe 40 to 42 percent in those counties,” said former White House senior adviser Karl Rove, who used the strategy to secure Mr. Bush’s re-election in 2004.

Limiting the size of losses at the partisan precinct level can have implications on the national electoral map. In 2004, Mr. Bush won Ohio by just 118,000 votes of the 5.6 million cast in the state. Thus, either candidate who can pick up 5,000 votes here, 10,000 there, across the counties won decisively by the other party in 2004 could widen the margin - or win the state and its coveted 20 electoral votes.

Ohio is a bellwether state of long standing - no Republican has clinched the presidency without winning it - which is why the two campaigns have combined for 20 visits there since the nominating conventions. The high stakes have pushed Mr. Obama into unfamiliar territory.

“We’ve seen Obama down here in southwest Ohio,” said Grant Neeley, associate political science professor at the University of Dayton in Montgomery County, a blue county surrounded by red ones. “In the opponent’s back yard, it’s about convincing those people who are still on the fence, who are still questioning, to come over to the other side.”

Even though less than seven weeks are left in the marathon campaign, support for both candidates remains soft. A Quinnipiac University poll last week found that 12 percent of McCain supporters in Ohio might change their minds, but for Mr. Obama, the number is 17 percent - nearly one in five. Some Democrats in the mostly liberal Mahoning Valley already are considering crossing to the other party.

“Call it a funny feeling, but I never liked Obama from the start,” said Lisa Roberts, 40, a registered Democrat who works at a sandwich shop in the food court at Southern Park Mall in Youngstown.

She backed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the primary, when the New York Democrat crushed Mr. Obama by 10 points in Ohio. She said she now might vote for Mr. McCain and welcomed a visit to the area by the McCain-Palin team.

“He needs to come to Youngstown because of how bad it has gotten in Youngstown,” Mrs. Roberts said. “The economy is down. Crime is up. It’s not a nice place anymore.”

The Democrats responded by dispatching Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Mr. Obama’s running mate, on a two-day bus tour through the same swath of Ohio, including Youngstown on Thursday. But the McCain campaign’s push in the region has energized Republicans in Trumbull County, a solidly Democratic county of about 217,000 people.

“I’m used to losing battles here, but the feeling I’m getting from people is it is going to be competitive,” said Jack Deal, 65, a Republican precinct committeeman in Warren, the county seat.

He expects plenty of Democrats in Trumbull County to cross over to the Republican ticket.

“I guarantee that,” Mr. Deal said on a recent afternoon, sitting on the bandstand at Courthouse Square in Warren. “Even a lot of Democrats think Obama is too far to the left for their taste. I’m hearing that from a lot of Democrats.”

Mr. Deal said the newfound excitement for the McCain campaign could be measured by the high demand for tickets to the event Tuesday in Vienna, Ohio, where Mr. McCain and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, spoke to a crowd of about 5,000.

“The tickets are going like crazy,” he said on Monday. “The governor has captured people’s attention - Governor Palin. People want to see what she’s like.”

Polls show the economy is the top issue in Ohio, where the unemployment rate is 7.2 percent, sixth highest in the country, according to July data. The state lost 5,600 manufacturing jobs between January and July, and more than 270,000 since January 2000 when Mr. Bush took office.

That gives an opening to Mr. Obama, who charges that electing Mr. McCain would amount to a third Bush term. The Democratic ticket is likely to appeal to those hit hardest by the weak economy.

“We’ve had enough of eight years’ worth of Republicanism,” said Debbie, a 54-year-old nurse in Youngstown who would not give her last name. “I think we need a change.”

The registered Democrat said her son was out of work for three years after losing his job when Delphi, an automotive parts manufacturer, closed its plant in Youngstown.

“There’s just no work around here for young people,” she said, adding that Republicans “didn’t do anything for eight years, and I still see the same people struggling.”

Seizing the opening, the Obama campaign is raiding enemy territory for votes, said Isaac Baker, a spokesman for the Obama campaign in Ohio. He noted Mr. Obama’s recent campaign stop in Lima, Ohio, a Republican stronghold that had not received a visit by a Democratic presidential candidate in 50 years and where Mr. Bush won by a 2-1 margin in 2004.

“We feel pretty good about our ability to expand the map as we are doing across the country and in Ohio as well,” Mr. Baker said.

He said Mr. McCain can look for votes in places such as Youngstown, but the Republican message will not resonate there and the candidate can’t match the Obama campaign’s grass-roots organization. The Obama campaign has more than 70 offices throughout Ohio compared with about a dozen for the McCain campaign, he said.

“I think you would be hard-pressed to walk around Youngstown tomorrow and find someone who agrees with McCain that the economy is strong,” he said. “He’s visited Youngstown a couple times. The problem there is his message.”

S.A. Miller reported from Ohio.

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