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Seeing hope in Ohio, Obama shifts schedule there

Philip Elliott

DILLONVALE, Ohio — Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, who once pledged to compete in every U.S. state, has shifted his thinking. Now, he’ll pick and choose where to spend time and money in his race against Republican John McCain.

Despite early optimism, Obama’s strategists are mapping out an electoral plan ahead of the Nov. 4 election similar to Democrat John Kerry’s from 2004, with a few tweaks. Kerry lost to incumbent President George W. Bush in a close race.

Obama still plans to push into traditionally Republican and rural areas, such as this farm region along the Ohio River. But don’t look for the Democrat in, say, undeniably Republican Idaho.

Obama made a beeline for the industrial upper Midwest when he left last month’s Democratic National Convention. With a swing through Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, Obama signaled the importance of this region to his campaign. Kerry won Pennsylvania and Michigan — two states where Obama strategists think their chances are iffy — and lost Ohio by a one-vote-per-precinct margin in 2004.

Obama has long looked for a way to win the White House without the 20 electoral votes of Ohio, the prototypical swing state. His top aides, including his campaign manager, once said they could lose the state and still win the election by picking off states that typically support Republicans.

No more.

The campaign is quietly eyeing a states’ map similar to the one used in past elections, with a few exceptions. Obama last week dropped advertising in Georgia, a traditionally Republican state that he considered winnable based on increased voter registration among blacks and young people.

Yet Obama is advertising in about 16 states; Kerry only won four of them in 2004.

The updated plan puts Ohio and its neighbors back at the top of the list. And for good reason.

Lots of new voters registered for the state’s March primary, and Democrats now enjoy a 900,000-person advantage on state voter rolls. Pennsylvania favors Obama by 1 million registered Democrats. Michigan doesn’t register by political party.

Yet Democrats who supported Hillary Rodham Clinton during the primaries haven’t completely swung over to Obama, according to his campaign’s internal polling. Aides are optimistic they will get there before November, aided by events such as Obama’s discussion last Wednesday about women and the economy in eastern Ohio.

Obama borrowed pieces of Clinton’s stump speech during a stop last Friday at a glass factory near Scranton, employing the same rhetoric that helped Clinton win in Pennsylvania.

“I have to say to you: I’m not perfect, but the one thing people can’t deny is that for my entire public life, I’ve been fighting for folks like you, ordinary, middle-class families and working families, helping them getting ahead,” Obama said.

Obama aides also believe that McCain is unlikely to match the Republican voter turnout that Bush got in 2004, something McCain’s own aides acknowledge. The Obama campaign also is trying to narrow the margin of Obama’s loss in rural regions, such as this area in southern Ohio where cell phones don’t work and bales of hay line the winding roads.

“I don’t think John McCain gets what’s going on here in Ohio,” Obama told a family picnic. “When you agree with George Bush 90 percent of the time, you probably don’t know what’s going on.”

A new electoral equation still remains a goal for Obama and the Democratic Party, particularly with an eye toward the party’s congressional and state gubernatorial races. But Obama’s pledge to compete everywhere has quietly been pared back to about a dozen high-priority states, including Michigan, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

The effort also is meant to force McCain to spend money for staff and advertising in states he might have considered safely his.

Ohio, a sprawling state that blends urban centers such as Cleveland with farm country, was the linchpin for Bush’s re-election in 2004. Obama’s staff is targeting voters there on a street-by-street basis.

No Republican has ever won the presidency without carrying Ohio, and only two Democrats in recent history have done so. This is a state where the working class fears a contracting economy, the Iraq war remains unpopular and elected officials fret as their college graduates leave for other states.

Obama and McCain are running about even in the state: Obama was at 47 percent and McCain at 45 percent in a CNN-Opinion Research Corp. poll of registered voters conducted Aug. 31– Sept. 2. As the local economy has worsened in recent years, both campaigns see reason to redouble their efforts and focus on pocketbook issues.

McCain has seen frustration directed at his slow start and disquiet among social conservatives melt away. His pick of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who is solidly opposed to abortion rights, gave McCain a boost among social conservatives, a voting bloc that dominates the southwest corner of Ohio, central Pennsylvania and northern Michigan.

Obama lost 83 of Ohio’s 88 counties during his primary campaign against Clinton. Some Obama aides worry the outcome might be similar come November; McCain’s advisers expect it to be even worse for the Democrat.

It’s telling that Obama traveled to the state twice in less than a week. He’ll be back.

(Associated Press)