On the election trail, Oxford, Ohio

Published in The Scotman and scotsman.com

The sales of Stetson hats have tanked at Rose Mallory’s shop on the country road to Oxford, where Michelle Obama is rousing the Democrat party faithful in this corner of the “battlefield of battlefields”.

Her shop, Country Corner, offers “western wear for the entire family”, from dress boots to toy horses. “Business has been terrible in the last few years, before they said we were in a recession,” she said. “We used to sell expensive Stetson hats, $100-150. I don’t even carry them any more. Now if you can sell them for $25 you are doing good.”

Ohio, in the heart of the mid-west, is not the first home of the Stetson hat. But Mallory’s comments reflected those of many people here who worry most about jobs and the economy – but show little enthusiasm for either President Barack Obama, or his Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

“I’m not that excited about either,” she said. The “negativity of the advertisements” put out by both sides have taken their toll. In the last election, she was at least a fan of Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin – a big supporter of western style.

But the story is the same from Bill Wharf, 62, in Cincinatti, who was laid off by BAE Systems from his job armour-plating Humvees three years ago and now works as a shuttle bus driver. “I lost my job under Obama, but I don’t like Romney’s 47 percent,” he said, talking of the candidate’s private brieging to backers when he seemed to write off half the US population as non-contributors. “Obama inherited it from George Bush. Bush was the same thing as Romney. I don’t like either one.”

For months now, in this election “battlefield of battlefields”, Ohio voters have been barraged by wall-to-wall television adverts, constant robo-calls, and sometimes more than one house visit in a day. They are told constantly how vital they are, but perhaps growing a little tired of the attention.

A radio slot urges that Romney “will stand up for the auto industry, not China”, after the Republicans claimed that Obama’s bailout of the car companies had actually sent Jeep jobs to China. By the side of urban freeways here, giant electronic billboards blaze out to “stop Obama killing coal”, still a big industry in southern Ohio.

In the course of 48 hours in just the south-western area around Cincinatti, Mitt Romney appeared with a line-up of Republican big names. Michelle Obama made her case, and Obama himself was appearing in a stadium rally yesterday. The place has the feel of a heavily-fought critical by-election in Britain, with the concentration of political clout.

The mid-Western state has a population of about ten million and 18 electoral college votes of the 270 needed to win. It is also seen as a microcosm of America, ranging from its industrial and more liberal north eastern cities of Columbus and Cleveland, to the typically conservative southern city of Cincinatti, in a region bordering West Virginia and Kentucky.

George Bush carried Ohio, by huge margins in its most conservative areas, in a swing said to have given him the White House. Four years ago Republican John McCain lost the state. It’s seen as critical to Romney’s chances.

Michelle Obama is speaking to student supporters at Miami University in Oxford – a public university of stately brick buildings founded in 1809, and named for the local Miami Indians, in a town dominated by the college. “Miami was a university when Florida was part of Spain,” a staff member proudly says.

The Glee Club and the Miami University Marching Band have turned out in the old gymnasium, chosen by the US Secret Service as an enclosed space they can better protect, with bomb-sniffing dogs circling arriving cars. Gun control does not even get a mention on the hustings here, from either side.

In an impassioned and powerful speech – the kind that Obama supporters might wish to hear from him – she portrays him as the man who saved the American auto industry, who is there for women’s rights, who won’t deport long-term immigrants. “It’s going to take more than four years to finish rebuilding the economy,” she said.

But the student body here is sharply divided. The Republican vice presidential candidate, Paul Ryan, spent four formative years here, developing his knowledge of conservative economic theory. Across the street from the gym, his old fraternity house, Delta Tau Delta, is festooned with Romney-Ryan flyers. “Obama is a communist,” yells a group of five young white men, all first-year students, out to irritate the Democrat crowd. Ryan came to the university for his very first rally after his Vice Presidential nomination.

The previous night in West Chester, a deeply conservative Cincinatti suburb which voted 76 percent for George Bush, students from Miami University were in the stands, wearing red, white and blue teeshirts to shape the US flag.

In a long, snaking, red-clad queue of Republican faithful waiting to join the huge rally, Tom Kantwell, of the “Citizens for Community Values Action”, was handing out leaflets promising $15 an hour for door-to-door campaigners. “This is a grass roots group. We are not about politics. We are pro-life, pro-traditional ,” he said. “We might as well pay people to do what they believe in.”

Waiting in the line are Jim Shank, a bar owner in Cincinatti, with his partner, Lauren Pellecchia, who said she worked as a teacher in a private school for 400 pupils until enrollment was “hit and hit” and classrooms emptied. They will vote on the economy, and jobs, they say. They are used to the barrage of campaigning. “We are the girl that everybody wants to dance with.”

It’s a constant refrain from Republicans that Obama is “killing coal”, with coal fields here close to the southern borders of the state. A new front is opening up on fracking, splitting shale for natural gas with high-pressure water; its estimated over 2,000 wells could be drilled here by 2015, with over 100 so far.

Marsha Atkins has come in from West Virginia to help canvas, in places like Irontown, a coal town in southern Ohio, calling on ministers, writing letters to newspapers, going door to door. “It is the swing state of all swing states. It is the most important,” she said.

Her 18-year-old son wants to work in energy and natural gas, she said. “If president Obama gets his way, with the Environmental Protection Agency and the fracking, he’s trying to get all of those roadblocks in place to stop that..”

The warm up speakers in a power list of Republican politicians across the US roused the crowd by hitting again and again at the death of the US Ambassador in Benghazi, an issue that seemed bizarrely out of place but seemed to resonate with Republican voters here. They were murdered because of Obama’s “incompetence”, they say, while Romney “won’t leave Americans behind.” The rhetoric is personal, aimed at Obama, not his government.

The other is the budget deficit. Billboards has a graph showing the US national debt soaring upwards to $16 trillion. “President Obama look what you’re leaving our children. You’re fired!”

Romney’s closing message is more gentle; he talks about crossing the aisle, to find a bright future for America, urges people to “walk with me”. “Now you know if the president were to be reelected, he’d continue his war on coal, and oil and natural gas,” Romney tells the crowd. “He’d send billions of more dollars to his favourite solar and wind companies. And all of this will guarantee higher energy prices at the pump, and your jobs. Today gas costs twice as much as it did when President Obama was elected. I know just how much energy means to middle class families.”