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In Utica, N.Y., a frustrating wait for the campaigns to end

This Rust Belt city understood the pain of recession long before the rest of the nation, when the factories started closing and few opportunities arrived in their place. The area helped send Barack Obama to the White House, hearing his message of hope and change.

But fears of government overreach soon crowded that out.On the radio, a local car dealership tries to move Fords by advertising as “the guys that didn’t take the bailout.”

This political season, voters have faced the lingering economic morass, an endless loop of attack ads and, at the top of the state’s ticket, a governor’s race that features mad-as-hell “tea party” candidate Carl Paladino.

As the days dwindle, people seem ready for the campaigns and the political ads to end.

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“None of us are on the fence,” said David Rees of nearby Oneonta.

Rees attended his first tea party rally recently and was surprised by what he saw.

“I knew a lot of people there,” he said.

Within this daunting framework, Democratic U.S. Rep. Michael Arcuri is trying to keep the job he won in a 2006 Democratic wave. This year, a likely Republican rebound makes his one of the toughest races in the nation.

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The country has taken note. Outside money has poured in, and former President Bill Clinton swooped in Friday night for a last-minute assist.

Arcuri’s rematch against Republican businessman Richard Hanna will be one to watch early Tuesday night, when New York could see up to a third of its congressional delegation, now almost entirely Democratic, flip to the GOP.

“There’s a very palpable degree of anger in this state,” said Richard Barberio, an associate professor of political science at SUNY College at Oneonta. “We’re sort of swirling around in all of it.”

The area’s rural back roads and gray city streets seem plucked from the lyrics of classic rock songs -- familiar lines about the struggles of regular people in places that have seen better days.

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Well-paid work has trickled away since World War II. Thousands of area manufacturing jobs were lost between 2000 and 2008, and people still recall how the shutdown of Griffiss Air Force Base cost 5,000 jobs in the 1990s.

The local economy’s transformation to healthcare, financial services and retail, a state report said, has been “slow.” Part of the debate here, as in so much of the country, revolves around whether government should help by getting involved -- or by getting out of the way.

Arcuri is the first Democrat to hold this seat in more than 20 years, and he has distanced himself from his party in Washington. He voted against the final healthcare bill, after voting for an early version. In an ad he declares: “I’m not Nancy Pelosi.”

Utica dad Dwayne Cross gives a blank stare when asked if he supported Obama back in 2008. An African American, he tells how he was first in line at his polling place, his newborn son in his arms.

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“I said to him, ‘You won’t remember this, but history will.’”

But on Tuesday, he will be voting for Hanna. He says he isn’t confident that Arcuri can “hold his ground.”

Among the Democratic faithful, Arcuri remains popular. But in this region along the Erie Canal, skepticism settles in like stubborn rust. Susan Wrobel remembers Obama’s message.

“All this hope and change -- this flighty rhetoric,” she recalls outside a Save-A-Lot food store, one of two she manages in the region."I just had this sinking-gut feeling at the time.”

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lisa.mascaro@latimes.com


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