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Is Ohio McCain Country?

Roughly 18 months after his defeat in the 2004 presidential election, John Kerry spoke at the commencement of Kenyon College, a small liberal arts college in rural Ohio. The students and faculty, predominantly Kerry fans, were regaled with his stories from the night of the election. At the onset, the Massachusetts Senator noted, "Class of 2006 - fellow survivors of November 2, 2004...," and he continued the theme throughout.

For example:

For the Election Day event that united us was a disappointment. There's no way around it. Even as we flew in over Columbus this morning, I was looking down at the Ohio landscape, thinking: we came so close. So what.

I watched a CSPAN replay of that Kerry speech while vacationing in Ithaca, New York, a few weeks after it transpired. I recall musing that Kerry's U.S. geographical knowledge, though better than the 2008 Democrat nominee's, was lacking. This part of Ohio, John, like most American small towns, especially in the Midwest, was Bush Country. While Ohio has more small "progressive" liberal arts schools (Kenyon, Denison, Oberlin, Antioch) than most states outside of New England, they all sit in small towns. Conservative politics are the rule once you leave the campus gates.

But Ohio, America's seventh most populous state, also has nine cities with close to, or more than 100,000 people -- all of which lean left, from the metropolises of Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, and Cincinnati to the mid-size union towns in the north like Akron, Toledo, and Youngstown. And while Hillary Clinton did very well in the Buckeye State, it's unknown how Obama will be received.

Since the Electoral College dictates that only seven or eight states truly matter on November 7, and because Ohio might well be the state that tips the scales again in '08, I set out to find out where people will lean in the fall and why.

Fast forward two years from the night that I viewed the Kerry speech. My fiancée and I were taking a weekend trip from Indianapolis to Cleveland to visit family. Rolling along I-70 past sitting water from the great 2008 flood of early June in southeastern Indiana, we stopped for a food break from the sun and mugginess at an Ohio legend: Skyline Chili.

The walls in most Skylines I've eaten at are adorned with American pride: heroic scenes from 9-11, the Iwo Jima Memorial, and patriotic flare. And this individual franchise, in the flatlands just north of Dayton, Ohio, was no different.

After wolfing coneys and pasta, I went to pay our bill and struck up a discussion with some gentlemen I'd overheard at the next table who had been talking about umpiring local baseball. I was going to ask them about their political views when news broke of the passing of Tim Russert. One of the men crossed himself and said a small prayer for the fallen journalist. He then noted to me, "Kind of a loud mouth, but we cherish any life equally."

I didn't press further. The statement was telling. We changed the subject back to sports and he eventually left with his friend, another athletic looking 40-year-old with a blue tooth in his ear. As I was leaving, I asked one of the three clean cut Skyline workers if they knew about those guys, since everyone seemed local, and they noted, "Oh yeah, that's Mr. Wilson and Mr. Baker. They're good people."

Later, I was informed Baker sang in the church choir and Wilson was a city councilman in Englewood. They also both officiated local high school sports. No one told me who they preferred for president, but as this "small town scene" played out again, I realized that the wonderful clichés are surely true. And here we were just miles from Ohio's fourth largest city.

An hour down sat Ohio's capital city of Columbus.

My cousin and her husband -- he just back from a tour in Afghanistan -- reside here in the Buckeye State's largest city, and we stopped to say hello.

"Jeremy" grew up in a family mostly consisting of , as he puts it, "old Democrats from the working party mindset when party lines were not necessarily drawn along social lines." But as he and his twin brother joined the ROTC in college and then were deployed to Afghanistan, they became conservative-minded, particularly with respect to the Global War on Terrorism.

"My vote in November will be for John McCain. He is an expert on national security, the most important issue at hand," Jeremy, now an Army captain, who spent two years at West Point before graduating Cum Laude from Vanderbilt in 2003, said. "He is a true American hero and a qualified commander-in-chief. "

Jeremy currently works as a mechanical engineer. He was valedictorian of his high school class in Louisville, KY. With respect to his perhaps erstwhile Democrat-leaning family, he now claims, "Although this election, the majority of them will vote for McCain."

One of Jeremy's co-workers, "Steve," an engineer who resides in Columbus as well, noted: "In this presidential election I think we have two choices: a Democrat and a Marxist. McCain is the Democrat and Obama the Marxist." The 40-year-old with a wife and two small kids added, "I wish we had a Republican running."

To find dedicated Obama supporters, I had to enter Dennis Kucinich country in northeastern Ohio. As I moved into the East Cleveland suburbs, I entered the lily-white suburb of Beechwood, median income $166,000. About every fourth house on historic Shaker Blvd., where the 4,000 square foot houses start at well over a million dollars, had an Obama sign planted in their huge front lawns. There are few, if any, churches or synagogues in Beechwood, and an abundance of Whole Foods and shiny malls.

On this Flag Day 2008, we went to briefly visit our family friend, "Tim." A native Ohioan, Tim is a 32-year-old salesman with a pleasant wife and two precious young children. He's not necessarily a salesman in the Willie Lohman sense, but the modern sense in that he's comfortable and happy. He has a nice house, good friends, and season tickets to all the three major Cleveland sports franchises.

I've known Tim since we were children, and he's always been apolitical; but this year, though he does not have a campaign sign on his lawn, he's really into Obama. I asked him why, and his best answer (after refusing to discuss it at first) was that he "wants change." Particularly, he traveled on business to New Orleans last year and saw the devastation of Katrina, which helped him make up his mind that we needed a president who "cared about the little people." He is no fan of President Bush, claiming "every time that man opens his mouth, I'm ashamed he's the president."I don't know why else Tim wanted "change" from his great life, and he offered no more clues, only saying, "Let's just agree to disagree."

We attended the Cleveland Indians game that night with a few locals, including "Leah," who is friends with my cousin. Before we were introduced, my cousin confessed, "Ari, you may not get along with her." I pondered if she was perhaps a New York Yankee fan or something, before hearing about her admiration for Obama.

Leah was not your typical liberal elitist, having grown up in Alaska. And aside from ranting about the melting glaciers there, at first she seemed as white-bread American as anyone. Much like me, she loved sports and the Midwest.

Then we came to learn she was a Spanish and Women's Studies instructor at a local university, and that she had attended Barack Obama speeches all throughout the Midwest over the past few months. As my cousin chucklingly told me prior, "she's in love with him, treats him like G-d...even though she's a committed atheist." I would have laughed harder if I had not heard that one before about other Obama supporters.

Leading off, Leah bemoaned that HBO's The Wire will never be a popular show since it has an "all African-American cast" which "we are not ready for." Facts to the contrary aside, she feels the same about Obama, declaring to all of us that "Americans are not ready for a black president." When I pressed about other Anglo nations, she was unaware of any who had black leaders. She continued on a diatribe, but, as I turned my attention to the baseball game, the only other nugget I took note of was her angry declaration that, "Fear and hatred of blacks in the US is ingrained in the national culture."

For the record, Leah is neither a fan of the current president, nor Hillary Clinton. She called Pres. Bush "an evil environmental rapist," and said she did not vote for Mrs. Clinton in the primary because Hillary "reminds me of my mom."

On the long drive back Father's Day evening, we stopped in Ashland to have an early dinner with a friend. Ashland, whose city motto is "Where Accent on the Individual is a Tradition," is also home to a small private college; but unlike other liberal arts schools in Ohio, Ashland University is a religious school. There are thus more KFCs and Grandpa's Cheese Barns than Panera Breads and Starbucks.

I met up with "Mike" at the local Bob Evans, a Heartland staple, founded by the eponymous farmer from southeastern Ohio. Mike is a Republican through and through. I knew this, but also wanted to pick his brain on a town like Ashland, which sits nearly halfway between Cleveland and Columbus in the Cuyahoga Valley.

We ate well, and it should be noted that Matt is not your typical conservative in that he is a recently-retired public schoolteacher. But, he was a teacher who bucked the system, creating his own military history curriculum each year during the 33 years he taught.

Upon entering his house, paraphernalia from the military concert band he conducts each weekend in the summer greets you, as does a Bush bobble head doll, and lastly, his incredible collection of Second World War artifacts: helmets, pictures, uniforms, and lots of guns.

Being well-versed in history but not necessarily helmets nor guns, I inquired.

"A lot of conservatives and even some moderates are big fans of the Second Amendment," he told me with a wry smile. "The Democrats are not. They take this seriously. I am not an NRA member but I own a gun, so this does matter to me."

Matt's father helped liberate Normandy in June 1944, though his grandfather actually fought for Germany in The Great War three decades prior. His German descent was only evident in his last name and perhaps his array of German/Nazi war helmets.

The small house was adorned with Old Glory, and his two college-aged children both drove vehicles with "Support our Troops" and "Bush/Cheney" stickers. Matt shared with me that not all teachers are like those I worked with in Los Angeles.

"In the Ashland schools, it's about a 50/50 split between party affiliations amongst faculty" he said. "But this year, the kids happened to be infatuated with Obama. Makes me glad I'm now retired," as he laughed and offered me an RC Cola.

Matt shared then with me that "McCain has four votes here," proudly hugging his wife, also a teacher, and children -- both music majors in college.

When I asked him what he though would occur in Ohio, overall, he was not bashful.

"McCain will cruise. I really believe there are too many veterans, conservatives and moderates who care about this country here, especially outside of the major metropolitan areas. How the Dems decided to nominate a radical is beyond me."

He seemed confident. And he had to head to Home Depot to get supplies for a "summer project" he was working on in the backyard. Therefore, though it was mid June with lots of daylight in the 7pm air, we moved along southeast and headed for home.

The Obama campaign is wisely realizing their candidate very well may have to win this general election without Ohio now. Though the Illinois Senator was able to gain the Democrat nomination while losing badly in Ohio and other regional states (West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky), Obama's braintrust should realize that the last person to win the presidency without carrying Ohio was Franklin Roosevelt in 1944. It would clearly be evidence of "Change" were "The Messiah" to pull that feat off.