November 3, 2004

Ohio at forefront of battle

By URIEL HEILMAN
COLUMBUS, Ohio


As voters across America went to the polls Tuesday, all eyes were on the handful of swing states in which the race was too close to call.

In hotly contested Ohio, the capital, Columbus - roughly equidistant between the Democratic stronghold of Cleveland and largely Republican Cincinnati - was at the forefront of the battleground.

"We're actually causing a war in our neighborhood," said Michelle Johnson, 21, whose house in a gay neighborhood of Columbus is festooned with Bush/Cheney signs. "Our landlord came to our door and asked us to take the signs down. The Kerry people are threatening to throw bricks through the windows."

In a sign of just how important Ohio's 20 electoral votes have been in this close presidential contest, President George W. Bush broke with the tradition of not campaigning on Election Day and flew here to get in some last-minute campaigning after casting his vote in Crawford, Texas. The night before, Sen. John Kerry was in Cleveland for a rally with rock star Bruce Springsteen.

In 2000, Bush carried Ohio by 3.6 percent.

Volunteers for each campaign stood on opposite street corners in the driving rain outside the state capitol.

Michael Losinske, 60, said he had spent most of the last 10 days waving Bush/Cheney signs on downtown sidewalks. He also held aloft a blow-up dolphin with which he yelled, "No flipper in the White House!" a reference to Republicans' characterization of Kerry as a flip-flopper on the issues.

"As a Catholic, it bothers me how many Catholics are voting for Kerry," Losinske said. "He's a divorced Catholic; he's pro- abortion."

Losinske said he also does not understand why most Jews do not support Bush. "Why are Jewish people so enthralled with Kerry?" he asked. "They should be 98% for Bush. He took out the Taliban. He took out Saddam, one of Israel's worst enemies. He's trying to put the kibosh on Iran."

Stan Sinberg, who came from California to help rally Democrats on Election Day, called Bush a "right-wing religious zealot."

Not far away, Karen Jones sported a Kerry/Edwards sticker on an Uncle Sam puppet she waved at drivers. "Our president doesn't understand nonviolence or diplomacy," she said. "I guess as a Jewish person I feel very strongly that we need to get to the roots of terrorism, which I believe are hopelessness and rage."

Exhausted by the seemingly endless campaign, many Ohioans said they'd be glad when it is over and they could resume normal life.

But even as voters emerged from their touch-screen booths sporting stickers reading "I voted today," Democratic and Republican officials alike worried that legal battles over a close vote could stretch out the race far beyond Election Day.

Lawyers for both parties stood by at many polling places, as both parties blamed each other for turning the election into a legal battle.

Early Tuesday morning, a federal appeals court in Ohio ruled that election observers could monitor the vote at polling places, overturning a pair of lower-court decisions on the matter and prompting concerns about voter intimidation and chaos at the polls.

The decision was of particular concern to Democrats, who were expected to be the primary beneficiaries of the surge of new voter registrants, and they appealed to the Supreme Court. Justice John Paul Stevens refused the request for an appeal.

Standing in a 90-minute-long line to vote at an area high school, Gary Gillett, 44, a Jewish attorney, said he was worried that election observers might slow things down so much that would- be voters would lose patience and go home. "It isn't so much that they're intimidating people, the lines are intimidating people," he said. "But I'd wait in line no matter what, because I want to run Bush out of office."

In Bexley, a heavily Jewish suburb, voters waited patiently in a line that snaked its way through a school gymnasium and out the door.

Sally Skuller, an octogenarian who claimed her grandfather had been good friends with president Warren Harding, emerged from the voting booth with a smile. She said she voted straight Republican.

Skuller said she remembered her grandfather going into the voting booth to help her mother, aunt, and grandmother vote. "He went in there three or four times every election," she said. "They weren't so strict back then, and the ladies weren't used to voting."

This year, it was mainly Republicans making charges of voter fraud, and Democrats crying foul at deceptive Republican tactics and voter intimidation aimed at keeping Kerry supporters away from the polls, just as they said Republican operatives kept Al Gore supporters away from the polls in Florida in 2000.

In South Carolina, for example, fliers appeared telling Democrats that polling day for them was Wednesday and that only Republicans could vote on Tuesday.

Jason Mauk, a spokesman for the Ohio Republican Party, denied that Republican election observers were trying to suppress the vote. "It is not an intimidation tactic; it is simple an effort to keep fraud away from the ballot box," he said.

Kareem Lindsey, 32, said he was staying away from all the controversy by not going to the polls this election - or any election.

"I'm a Jehovah's Witness, and in our religion we stay out of politics," he said. "God's kingdom is the one that's going to solve the problems."