Here's what puts the "battle" in the battleground of Ohio.
First, the campaigns bomb people senseless from the air, hitting them for months with tens of thousands of mostly negative television ads. Then, they send in the ground troops to knock on doors, make phone calls, send e-mails for a voter registration and turnout blitz.
Finally, and increasingly frequently, the generals arrive, warring over peace and prosperity and issuing dire warnings about terrorism, Social Security, health care and taxes.
Sen. John Kerry came last weekend and again Thursday. On Tuesday it was Vice President Dick Cheney and, again, Kerry. Sen. John Edwards arrived Wednesday; And President Bush is due Friday. So is Cheney.
In no state has the term "battleground" been so overworked and yet so true.
The folks in Toledo have endured more TV ads--14,000, an average of nearly 60 a day since March--than any city in the nation. Until Bush showed up a few weeks ago, the people in Portsmouth hadn't seen a president step foot in their gritty Ohio River city since Herbert Hoover more than 70 years ago.
"In all the years I've lived here, I've never seen attention like this," said Rick Estep, who runs a downtown Portsmouth sporting goods store and will vote for Bush.
In Toledo, Heather Nunley has stopped listening. "I always try to pay attention to the one who puts out the most negative stuff and vote for the other guy," said Nunley, who is leaning toward Kerry.
The two-pronged offensives from two mighty, partisan armies--one by air, the other by land--are part of the extraordinary struggle for what some see as the presidential campaign's Holy Grail--Ohio's coveted 20 electoral votes.
With more than 700,000 new voters registered statewide for the Nov. 2 contest, election officials in the northwest Ohio town of Defiance are investigating registration papers that include the names of Mary Poppins, Jeffrey Dahmer and Janet Jackson. State courts have been busy mediating disputes over ballots and voting procedures.
A new poll from the University of Cincinnati this week said the race is a statistical tie, guaranteeing the war for Ohio will rage on in the great American middle ground where small-town values thrive in cities as big as Columbus.
This is a state that used to produce presidents--eight of them, including Ulysses Grant, William Howard Taft, Warren Harding and William McKinley, a favorite of Karl Rove, Bush's chief political strategist.
They set the mold for the most successful Ohio politicians--middle-of-the-road, not trend-setting, even dull.
Ohioans will occasionally tolerate liberals like former Sen. Howard Metzenbaum and Rep. Dennis Kucinich and may flirt with the idea of Jerry Springer running for governor, but their tastes in politics are more in line with their two Republican senators, Mike DeWine and George Voinovich, Bob Evans family restaurant-type politicians.
That's why Bush and Kerry, seeking to appeal to the American mass market, have visited this state nearly 40 times this year.
Economy a big issue
For all the sensible, rock-solid values of Ohio, though, the economy has altered the formula for capturing the state. Ohio, with a rich history of invention and entrepreneurial spirit embodied by Thomas Edison, John D. Rockefeller and the Wright brothers, is a state that makes things: cars, glass, rubber, steel and ball bearings.
But not like it used to, which is why it is preferable for politicians to wax on about Ohio's storied industrial past than to clearly project an attractive economic vision of the state's future. Of all the so-called battleground states, Ohio has the highest jobless rate--6.3 percent--and has been damaged more than most by manufacturing jobs leaving the state and moving out of the country.
Robert Diehl runs a newsstand in Chillicothe, which Kerry visited Sunday. He voted for Bush in 2000 but says he won't next month because "gas prices have gone up 40 cents a gallon, he got us into a war we can't win and he let our country lose so many jobs." Diehl said his son, daughter and sister have lost good-paying manufacturing jobs since Bush came into office.
"Why give him four more years?" Diehl asked.
Around the corner, Eddie Eblin has the answer. "Bush isn't going to let anybody mess with us," said Eblin, who works at a downtown hardware store.
While economic concerns tend to move Ohioans toward Democrats--they voted twice for Bill Clinton--the war, terrorism and cultural issues tug at the state's Republican instincts. Ohio is culturally conservative and patriotism is overt. Gun ownership is important here. Christian values motivate voters like Tarrah Bouts, of Portsmouth, whose father delivered the invocation at Bush's Sept. 10 visit here.
"The economy is not the deciding factor for me," said Bouts, who works at a cosmetics shop.
The congressman from the district that includes Chillicothe, Rep. Bob Ney, got french fries changed to "freedom fries" in the U.S. Capitol's menu, in protest of France's refusal to participate in the war against Iraq.
The war is deeply divisive. Nadine Daugherty, a self-described conservative Republican from Xenia, which Cheney visited Tuesday, attended a Kerry rally on the same day in Dayton. She wore a large button with a picture of her 22-year-old son, Paul, an Army medic who is scheduled to leave for Iraq before the end of the year. She plans to buy him body armor for Christmas. The war in Iraq "is not just," said Daugherty, who said she will vote for Kerry.
"People at home call me a traitor," she added.
The economy is a persistent worry. Four counties in southern Ohio reported jobless rates in August of more than 10 percent; two approached 16 percent. Soup kitchens and food pantries report they are running out of food because of the increasing demand.
`Will work for food'
Along U.S. Highway 23, on the northern edge of Portsmouth, Mary Richard stands by the side of the road holding a cardboard sign reading, "Will work for food or gas." Richards, 50, said she started doing this about a month ago because she's having trouble supporting her four grandchildren while her daughter and husband go to Columbus looking for work.
"People honk and wave. Some of them give me the bird," Richards said, "but they don't stop."
Even if people like David Morris, a Toledo florist, believe that presidents can do little to influence the pendular swings of the economy, others struggle to balance concerns about terrorism with personal worries over the economy.
"I don't trust Kerry, but I don't know if we can afford another four years of Bush," said Todd Landrum, a supervisor at a plumbing services shop in Chillicothe. Landrum describes himself as undecided.
"When slick Willie was there," Landrum said, referring to Clinton, "he did a few extracurricular activities, but he did what he said he'd do: He created jobs and reduced the deficit."
No Republican has moved into the White House without winning Ohio, a state that historically swings with the prevailing national political mood.
"There are so many moving pieces out there that it's very, very hard to predict," said John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron. "The temperature of the state varies from day to day."
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2003 estimated: 11.4 million
Age 65 and older: 13.3%
(U.S. average: 12.4%)
White, non-Hispanic: 84.0%
Black, non-Hispanic: 11.4%,
Median household income
(U.S. average: $41,994)
Registered voters: 7.8 million
Note: Because Ohio has open primaries, the Secretary of State's Office does not track registration by political party.
1984Sources: Bureau of the Census, Ohio Secretary of State's Office
Mondale (D) 39.1%
Reagan (R) 57.4%
Dukakis (D) 43.1%
Bush (R) 53.6%
Clinton (D) 39.4%
Bush (R) 37.6%
Clinton (D) 40.1%
Dole (R) 46.3%
Bush (R) 50.0%
Gore (D) 46.5%