November 4, 2004

Ohio takes center stage

By URIEL HEILMAN
COLUMBUS, Ohio


With the polls closed and the electoral map of the United States getting filled in during the wee hours of Wednesday morning, voters across America and people around the world focused their sights on a single state with the potential to decide this presidential contest: Ohio.

As the South and Plains states turned Republican red and the Northeast and West Coast went blue for Sen. John Kerry, it became increasingly clear that the race would be decided in the heartland of America - especially after Florida's 27 electoral votes went to President George W. Bush. With its 20 electoral votes, Ohio has become the focus of the race.

Unique in its political composition, Ohio is neither a Republican state nor a Democratic state, but a microcosm of America and its divisions. The state is at once both rural and urban, located in the Midwest but also home to large and cosmopolitan cities like Cleveland and Cincinnati.

It is a place where some voters say the most important issues in this race are outlawing abortion and upholding Christian values, and others maintain that Bush deceived the nation about the war in Iraq and needs to be thrown out of office.

Exit polling in Ohio on Tuesday showed that domestic concerns trumped foreign ones in this Rust Belt state, with most people saying the economy was their No. 1 issue and "values" taking a close second. According to polls by the Pew Research Center, the vast majority of those who cited the economy as their No. 1 issue voted for Kerry, while the vast majority of those citing values as their most important issue voted for Bush.

These differences were evident in interviews conducted around Ohio by The Jerusalem Post.

"Abortion kills 1.5 million people per year. That's the biggest issue for me - definitely," said Crystal Billman, a Republican campaign volunteer in Ohio.

Billman, 22, a stay-at-home mom with dyed pink hair from Columbus, said she decided she had to leave her baby and husband at home to help get out the vote for Bush. On the eve of Election Day, she was manning phone banks at Republican headquarters in Columbus in a last-ditch effort to get voters to show up at the polls Tuesday.

"My friends and me - we all share the same core value system," said Billman, who until this election had never been much involved in politics. "It just fits that we would follow Bush. We believe in strong, Christian values."

In a state where Clevelanders vote like Manhattanites and rural Ohioans vote like Alabamans, it was the zeal of voters like Billman that made the difference, particularly in an election that was decided by voter turnout.

"We built the largest grassroots political organization in the history of the party these last three- and-a-half years," said Jason Mauk, spokesman for the Ohio Republican Party. "Ohioans love President Bush. I don't think the other side has the same fervor for their candidate."

The Democrats, too, mounted a formidable effort to get out the vote and energize their base, even busing in volunteers from places like New York in an effort organized by American Coming Together.

"We began by emphasizing that Bush's economic policies have caused the loss of one million jobs and almost a quarter of a million in Ohio alone," Sandi DuBowski, the maker of the film Trembling Before G-d, wrote in an e-mail from Ohio a few days before the election, explaining his strategy when making campaign calls to voters in this vein.

"I spoke to a farmer whose big concern was rising fuel costs. I talked about Bush's failed environmental policies which have not developed other fuel sources and the tanking economy and Bush's rush into war and failure to win the peace," DuBowski wrote. "He was undecided at first but wound up leaning towards Kerry."

In downtown Columbus, J. Eric Peters, originally a supporter of former Vermont governor Howard Dean - the early Democratic front- runner whose campaign crumbled during the party primaries - wore a "F--k Bush" T-shirt as he put together campaign literature on the eve of the election. Nearby, a Kerry campaign played "Honky-Tonk for Truth," a country-music song written especially for the campaign.

Valerie Devanna, 19, spent the last few days of the campaign driving around Columbus with her friends in a car plastered with Bush/Cheney stickers. She said her church did not tell her whom to vote for, just to "vote God's way." Then, the choice was obvious, she said.

Her friend, Michelle Johnson, 21, said these values had to do with the war in Iraq, too. "Can you see Jesus letting Saddam stay in power?" she said.

If the crowds Tuesday at Ohio State University were any measure, the efforts of both Republicans and Democrats bore fruit. They came in droves, some waiting in lines as long as four hours to cast what for many was their first vote.

Chad McVeigh, president of Students for Kerry at Ohio State, said the wait was worth it. "I got to vote against Bush, which may have been one of the most pleasurable things I've ever done," he said. "It was sweet."