WINTERSVILLE, Ohio — They gather at this old watering hole every week, watching Steelers games and catching up, talking about their children and grandchildren, layoffs and job prospects, marriages and divorces. With the 2012 presidential election two weeks away and Ohio one of the most vital states on the path to the White House, talk easily turns to politics, and the salty language flows as freely as the Miller Lite.
They are mill workers, retirees and skilled laborers, and all have felt the brunt of the recession and the ongoing decline of the steel industry in this swath of eastern Ohio. Though their politics are varied, there are several things upon which they agree: Unfair trade policies have neutered the region's steel mills. Environmental bureaucrats are strangling the coal industry. Politicians of both parties use Social Security and Medicare to scare voters.
They are critical of President Obama's healthcare law, not because of high-minded debates about whether it violates the Constitution, but because they see their healthcare costs continuing to skyrocket in spite of it. They are skeptical of how a man as rich as Mitt Romney could ever understand their needs.
"I've never seen a multimillionaire have good intentions for working people or the poor," says Terry Wood, 60, who retired after he was laid off from his last job as a steel engineer. The Democrat is voting for Obama, but isn't thrilled about it, saying he rates the president a 3 or 4 on a scale of 1 to 10.
"Out of all the politicians we have in the United States, these two guys are the best we can come up with? It's kind of sad," the Steubenville resident says.
Romney's supporters here share the lack of enthusiasm.
Leslie Donley, 53, says she plans to vote for the GOP nominee. "But in all honesty, it isn't about Romney. I don't want the one that's in there right now," she says as she served drinks at the bar. "I don't think it matters who gets in there; it's going to get worse before it gets better."
The men and women who gather at J&J;'s, a wood shack with no sign out front, are among the most coveted voters in the nation. They will decide a state that very well may determine who takes the White House. The campaigns are battering them with television ads, and calling and knocking on their doors by the millions. Tired of the torrent of negativity they see on television every night, they say neither Obama nor Romney has made a case for why he ought to be elected to the highest office in the land.
For all the millions spent, the campaign has, in every meaningful sense, passed them by.
"Instead of slamming the other guy, give me something positive. Tell me how you're going to put America back to work. I'm tired of the negativity," says Phil Ferguson, 65, of Cross Creek Township. He retired as a field engineer after his steel company folded.
The registered Republican remains undecided.
"Romney has a plan to create 12 million jobs? Show me the plan. I haven't seen it," he says. "No one's telling me what they're going to do for the country. They're telling me what the other guy's not going to do."
The candidates may not be delivering a plan, but they are showering attention on this area near the Pennsylvania and West Virginia borders. Wintersville is located in Jefferson County, which in 2008 tilted in favor of Obama by 76 votes out of nearly 36,000 cast. Candidates and top surrogates are saturating the area — former President Clinton stumped for Obama in Wintersville on Thursday and GOP vice presidential nominee Paul D. Ryan campaigned an hour south of here on Saturday.
Set on rolling hillsides near the Ohio River, ablaze now with fiery red- and gold-leafed trees, the village is home to nearly 3,800 people. A water tower featuring a massive American flag and the town's name stenciled in red stands sentry. In some yards, political signs outnumber the Halloween decorations.
Scenic beauty aside, the area is struggling. Steel mills have shuttered, coal mines have laid off workers and manufacturing is reeling. Jefferson County has among the highest unemployment rates in Ohio, exceeding state and national jobless percentages. Children who grow up here often leave when they reach adulthood because of the lack of opportunity; the exodus has included all three of Donley's children. "They said there wasn't anything here for them," she said.
Donley took the bartending job after she closed two small businesses — a lighting store and a novelty shop.
"I had to cut my losses, it got so bad," she says. Her income, once as high as $65,000 annually, is now $15,000. "You can't afford to eat anymore."
The bar is smoky, with a dingy linoleum floor and plastic Steelers flags hanging from the ceiling. Baskets of popcorn battle with ashtrays for space on the counter. The televisions are tuned to football and NASCAR; keno and a pool table offer diversions. But the regulars are more focused on their discussion, which has now turned to listing the powerful interests that they believe are destroying the United States.
"The insurance companies are the scourge of the nation," says Mark Booth, 45, an electrician.
Wood agrees. "They're the ones ruining the nation," he says. "They dictate to the politicians. It's just so stinking corrupt, it's unbelievable. Lobbyists, there's another scourge."
Booth says that PACs and "super PACs" ought to be banned, and Wood adds Wall Street speculators to the list. "The bottom line is this country's screwed up," he concludes.
Black-and-white certainties suffuse political rallies and cable TV, but they don't apply here. Booth, who plans to vote a straight Democratic ticket, is an avid hunter, bagging his limit of seven deer annually to keep his family in venison for the year. Two of the Republicans talk about their fondness for Clinton, with Ferguson saying that he voted for him in 1996 because of the Democrat's efforts to balance the budget.
They don't care about Big Bird, binders of women or the gaffes both candidates have made — all temporary dust-ups in the long and contentious campaign. In the end, they are just clamoring for work. Of the eight men around the bar, nearly everyone has been touched by layoffs or downsizing. Men who used to earn decent middle-class salaries in the mills are driving 60 miles each way to find work, and see the next generation making $10 an hour with no benefits.
"We know what it is to have a good job that pays well, and we know what it is to not have a job and struggle," Ferguson says. "We're a hardworking people. These guys sitting here — none of us are afraid of real work. We could start a mill from scratch. Just give us the opportunity; we'll build anything you want."
One in a series of occasional stories on the states that will determine the next president.