YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Florida is so passe. This year's must-have state is Ohio.
"If it was all about Florida in 2000, it's Ohio, Ohio, Ohio in 2004," said state Rep. Sylvester Patton (search), looking out the window of his downtown office building at Youngstown's Historical Center of Industry and Labor, a two-story brick reminder of the epidemic of joblessness in Mahoning Valley.
Standing guard outside what is commonly known as the steel museum are statues of workmen, carved from steel and thus untouched by an economy so weak that the local newspaper on Patton's desk carried an inch-high front-page headline: "Staggering job loss."
Joblessness — and free trade agreements many here blame for the phenomena — are top issues in a state that may determine whether John Kerry (search) wraps up the Democratic presidential nomination Tuesday, when Ohio and nine other states hold elections.
Kerry and rival John Edwards (search) are devoting enormous time and money to Ohio and its 140 delegates, giving voters a preview of their strengths and weaknesses as potential general election candidates.
The winner will challenge President Bush, whose vulnerability is evident throughout the state. Democrats and Republicans believe job losses — as well as political shifts toward the GOP in Florida and elsewhere since 2000 — will make Ohio the ultimate Nov. 2 battleground.
"This is the center of the political universe," said Jo Ann Davidson, former speaker of the state House and regional chair of the Bush-Cheney campaign.
If so, the planets are not aligning for Bush. The state was second only to Michigan in the number of jobs lost in 2002. Its unemployment rate increased from 4.0 percent in December 2000, just before Bush took office, to 6.0 percent in December 2003. The state's current unemployment rate is seventh-highest in the nation.
State polls show Bush's approval rating in steep decline. Interviews with voters from Youngstown to Toledo — the state's hardest hit economic region — underscored his plight: Democrats are angry and vowing to vote in record numbers while even some Republicans are having their faith tested.
"I'm a Republican, but I'm not going to vote for Bush," said Phil Blackford, munching on a soft pretzel at a mall outside Youngstown.
Blackford, 82, owns a photography company that lost its business to overseas firms late in the Clinton administration. He blames the Democratic president and the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement (search), as well as Bush for not fixing the problem, and several other GOP voters concurred.
NAFTA is synonymous in Ohio for joblessness, giving Edwards an opening against Kerry. The front-runner supported NAFTA while Edwards, a freshman senator from North Carolina, was not in Congress in 1993. Edwards has aired ads criticizing NAFTA and has drawn huge crowds to anti-NAFTA rallies, including one at a Teamsters hall here.
Robert Bernat, secretary treasurer of Teamsters Local 377, bucked the Kerry-backing Teamsters bosses by opening his doors to Edwards. "Personally, I think an Edwards-Kerry ticket is the only way we can beat Bush," Bernat said sarcastically.
He complained that Kerry came to Youngstown two days after Edwards and, instead of holding a rally for the public, staged a tightly controlled question-and-answer session for a few workers. Bernat's comments reflect a widespread unease with Kerry's trade record among rank-and-file union members, even as labor chiefs rally behind the front-runner.
The latest Ohio poll showed Edwards trailing Kerry by 20 points, and his supporters say they're running out of hope.
"Unfortunately, Edwards may be peaking too late," said Wade Kapszukivwicv, a Toledo city council member.
Jerry Austin, a prominent Democratic strategist who is not tied to either candidate, said that with 10 states at stake Tuesday, the charismatic Edwards can't court voters as he did elsewhere.
Even so, many Ohio Democrats say Edwards would be a better matchup against Bush, because his economic populism would play in northeast Ohio and his Southern roots would appeal to cultural conservatives in the state's vast rural stretches.
"Edwards is a better November candidate than March candidate," Austin said.
Bush has reached the same conclusion, according to senior advisers who said that was one reason the president and top Republicans publicly focus on Kerry. They want him, not Edwards, to emerge.
For either candidate, there is no guarantee that the economy won't rebound in time to help Bush. Democrats also must present a clear solution to joblessness — other than putting Bush out of work.
Touring an aluminum plant outside Youngstown, Kerry shook hands with workers while gripping the local newspaper in his left hand. The Vindicator's sub-headline read, "Recession hits hard in Valley."
"Let Bush come here and explain where the jobs have gone," Kerry said.
Republicans counter that Kerry's policies on taxes, automobile fuel standards, natural gas and the coal industry will not play well in blue-collar Ohio.
"When there's a matchup on whose policies will create jobs, there will be no doubt about who wins Ohio," said Bush adviser Karl Rove. He was a force behind Bush's decision to lift steel tariffs, a shift that could hurt Bush in steel-producing states like Ohio.
Four years ago, with a healthier Ohio economy, Democratic nominee Al Gore abandoned the state shortly before the election to shift money to Florida. Ohio Democrats still bristle over the decision, noting that Gore lost by less than 4 percentage points.
Rep. Rob Portman of Ohio called the 2000 race "alarmingly close" and said Republicans underestimated the below-the-radar work of labor unions.
The Bush-Cheney campaign has bolstered its grassroots effort to avoid another surprise, with chairmen slated for every Ohio precinct. By contrast, the state Democratic Party is in shambles.
Since the 2000 race, traditional tossup states like Florida and Missouri have become more friendly for Republicans while a few states have shifted toward Democrat — Pennsylvania and Michigan, most notably.
That may mean fewer swing states in November, with Ohio and its 20 electoral votes perhaps the most prominent, strategists say. No Republican has ever won the presidency without Ohio.