Kerry Working Hard for the Winning Edge in Ohio

Times Staff Writer

The last Democratic presidential candidate who came to Stark County was Jimmy Carter, back in June of 1976. On Friday, Sen. John F. Kerry ended that 28-year absence, the latest indicator of this year’s intense focus on Ohio, one of the biggest electoral prizes of the presidential campaign.

Kerry has good reason to focus on Stark County, a once-bustling industrial hub in the northeastern corner of the state. Voters have supported the winner in nine out of the last 10 presidential elections. And Democrats think that if they win this region, they will win Ohio -- and the White House.

The Massachusetts senator promised that his half-day visit would not be his only stop.


“I’ll be back, let me tell you something, I’ll be back here, and whoever I chose to run for vice president with me will be back here too,” the presumptive Democratic nominee told several hundred people at a town hall meeting.

Bush won Ohio by a narrow margin four years ago. But recent polls show the president and his Democratic rival in a dead heat in the state. Both are showering Ohio with attention. Bush has visited 18 times since he took office -- five times so far this year -- and Kerry has now spent eight days here since effectively locking up the nomination in mid-March.

Kerry squeezed in his trip to Stark County between lucrative fundraisers this week. After raising $5 million at a star-studded concert in Los Angeles on Thursday night, he flew through the night to arrive in Massillon for a midday town hall meeting and rally at Perry High School that drew more than 2,000.

Later, he traveled to New York for a fundraiser with former rival Howard Dean, collecting another $1.5 million for his campaign and the Democratic Party.

There, Kerry joked about Vice President Dick Cheney’s recent use of a vulgarity on the floor of the Senate.

“If you think Dick Cheney is cursing today, wait until you hear what he says on Nov. 2,” he said.

Stark County, pop. 378,000, embodies the challenges and opportunities facing Kerry as he competes for Ohio. It’s a region with a strong current of social conservatism, but it has also been hit hard by the loss of manufacturing jobs that has plagued the Rust Belt in the last few years.

A patchwork of verdant green cornfields, hulking steel plants and new strip malls, Stark County “has become sort of a microcosm of the state,” said Herb Asher, a political science professor at Ohio State University in Columbus.

“It’s a wonderful place for the senator to make the case that the economic recovery is not all that it has been made out to be.”

Since Bush took office, 218,300 jobs have been lost statewide. And of that, more than 12,000 have disappeared from Canton, the Stark County seat.

Recently, the Hoover vacuum company in North Canton announced that it was moving its headquarters to Iowa, taking with it another 500 jobs. Last month, Timken Co., a local steel powerhouse, announced plans to close three steel-bearings plants, jeopardizing the jobs of 1,300 workers.

“This isn’t make-believe stuff,” Kerry told the audience at Perry High. “This is people’s lives. And that’s what we’re supposed to be doing something about at the national level in Washington. I don’t know where George Bush thinks America really is today, because it’s clear he’s not in touch with the lives of real Americans.”

The Bush campaign accused Kerry of painting an overly grim portrait of the local economy, noting that Ohio gained 1,000 jobs in May, and a total of 30,000 new jobs this year.

“Preaching pessimism to voters will not create a single job in Ohio, yet John Kerry continues to relentlessly heap negativity onto an economy that is recovering and creating jobs,” said Canton Mayor Janet Creighton, in a statement released by the Bush campaign.

“Ohioans want a president like George W. Bush who will ... reject John Kerry’s defeatist attitude and agenda.”

There is potential political fallout from Timken’s announcement. Company chairman, W.R. “Tim” Timken Jr., is a major Bush fundraiser. Bush visited a Timken plant in April 2003, saying it would benefit from his tax cuts, “which means jobs.”

On Friday, Kerry appeared at his town hall meeting with two Timken workers who expressed fear and frustration at the prospect of being out of work if last-ditch negotiations between the union and the company fail.

“The effect on employment will be both devastating and permanent,” said Scott Albertson, a mechanic at Timken Bearing Factory for 23 years. “There are just no good job opportunities left in this community.”

Times staff writer Michael Finnegan contributed to this report.