Anthony Manduca spent a week in Ohio and Virginia, two of the so-called 'battleground states' which could turn their backs on the Republicans and secure Barack Obama's place in the White House.

Ohio: A microcosm of America

Ohio has voted for the winning candidate in all 11 US presidential elections since 1960 so it is likely that whoever wins Ohio - which is often referred to as a microcosm of America - will end up winning the White House.

"Ohio is so diverse that the candidates say different things in various parts of the state to accommodate their audience. Over here, it's a mini-America," says Rodney Cole, a businessman and rural farmer in the town of Mansfield.

Carl Hunnell, managing editor of The Mansfield News Journal, agrees: "The candidates tailor their message depending (on) which part of the state they are in."

With its precious 20 Electoral College votes (out of 538) it is no wonder that Barack Obama and John McCain have visited the state on about 20 different occasions to campaign. Ohio, in fact, tops the TV commercials in this presidential campaign.

The state voted for Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 and for George Bush in 2000 and 2004. Bush won Ohio, which has a population of 11 million, in 2004 by a mere 118,600 votes. Had John Kerry obtained 60,000 more votes four years ago he would have been elected President.

In 2004, the result in Ohio matched the national average. Because the Republicans' margin of victory was so tight in Ohio four years ago, the Democrats feel that the mood for change in America, coupled with the economic crisis and the loss of so many manufacturing jobs in the state will lead to an Obama win.

Mark Niquette, a political journalist with The Columbus Dispatch, believes that McCain must win Ohio if he is to capture the White House. "Obama might afford to lose Ohio because he will probably win other important swing states, but McCain must win Ohio," he says.

Niquette believes the fact that 230,000 jobs have been lost in the manufacturing industry in Ohio will hurt the Republicans. Voter turnout will also be crucial. "A higher than usual turnout among African-American voters will help Obama.

"Also, unlike four years ago when national security was the number one issue, this time around the economy is clearly the dominant factor, and especially so in a state such as Ohio."

Herb Asher, a political science professor at Ohio State University in Columbus, and an expert on Ohio politics, believes that although the polls are pointing to an Obama victory in Ohio, it is still up for grabs.

"It will be a close election here," Prof. Asher says.

The Republicans are fighting hard to retain their hold over Ohio. The first thing that struck me during a visit to the Republican Party headquarters in Columbus was that there was not one photograph of Bush.

There were plenty of Ronald Reagan, a real hero for the Republicans, but none of the current President, which perhaps gives an indication of the state of the Republican Party today.

John McClelland, the communications director of the Ohio Republican Party, is convinced the economy will be the main issue in the election.

He acknowledges that Ohio has lost thousands of jobs in the manufacturing industry over the past 10 years and that having a Republican president for the last eight could hurt the party.

However, he believes McCain is the best candidate to address this 'new reality'.

"It's easy to be a populist like Obama and promise a lot of things to everyone," he says. "It's also easy to blame all our economic problems on Bush. However, the Democrats have controlled Congress for the last two years and things have got worse."

McClelland said that unlike Obama, McCain did not believe in protectionism and would not raise taxes. "Barack Obama is simply not ready to be President of the United States," he adds.

During a visit to the Ohio Democratic Party in Columbus there seem to be more employees and volunteers than at the Republicans' headquarters and one cannot but notice the sense of optimism.

Doug Kelly, the executive director of the Ohio Democratic Party, is confident of victory in both Ohio and nationwide. He explains that in 2006 the Ohio Democratic Party made history by electing, after 16 years, a US senator, a governor and a lieutenant governor.

"We have built up our party into a formidable machine in this state and we carry out door-to-door canvassing targeting independent voters. We are not only concentrating in the cities, which is what we did in 2004, but also in the rural areas," he said.

"Republicans don't send out any positive messages on the economy. Remember that McCain supported Bush 95 per cent of the time during these last eight years."

Tim Burger, the chief of staff of an Ohio trade union which has endorsed Obama, believes people want change. "Ohio usually votes Republican but we are in bad shape here and I believe people do want a change," he says.

Obama's Virginia target

The last time voters in Virginia backed a Democrat in a presidential election was when they voted for Lyndon Johnson in 1964, the year after John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Since then it has always voted Republican. However, demographic shifts in Virginia have given the Democrats hope that this southern state could finally vote for their candidate in November's election.

Like Ohio, Virginia is a diverse state. It has plenty of small towns which tend to vote Republican but it also has large liberal areas in the north whose residents - mainly lobbyists, lawyers and bureaucrats - work in Washington DC but live in the Virginia suburbs. This sector of the electorate helped elect a Democratic Governor, Tin Kaine, in 2005, and a Democratic Senator, Jim Webb, in 2006. Furthermore, African-Americans make up 20 per cent of Virginia's population and the Democrats have been behind a huge voter registration drive among this sector of the electorate as well as the young. Within two weeks, 400,000 new voters registered to vote in Virginia.

So, the Democrats believe that their increased support in the suburbs of Washington DC, a high African-American voter turnout, a general desire for change and an election dominated by the economy will bring them victory in Virginia and 13 more Electoral College votes.

Andrew Cain, the political editor of the Richmond Times Dispatch, said: "Barack Obama saw an opportunity in Virginia and responded. He built a coalition of Democrats in the north, African-Americans in the south and young voters state-wide. He has opened 49 offices in Virginia. McCain has only 50 people working for him in the state. Obama has outspent McCain three-to-one in Virginia."

However, Cain explains that both candidates are popular in the state and that the Republicans like Sarah Palin, McCain's running mate, especially the evangelical Christians in the south eastern part of Virginia.

Levar Stoney, the executive director of the Virginia Democratic Party, is cautiously optimistic about an Obama victory in Virginia. "We have offices throughout the state and are campaigning in all areas, including the rural parts. We are challenging the Republicans on their turf and we have a good chance of winning, although I believe the result in Virginia will be close."

He says the economy is the main issue and Obama is addressing the everyday needs and concerns of ordinary Americans. "If McCain loses in Virginia his chances of winning the White House are very slim because that means he will have to win in states like Pennsylvania - which is very doubtful indeed."

Stoney says that his party has knocked on one million doors in Virginia and called two million people to ask them to vote for Obama.

The Democrats are indeed campaigning in all parts of the state. Our group of journalists attended a rally addressed by Obama in the city of Roanoke (population 92,000), in southern Virginia, a Republican stronghold. The enthusiasm for Obama was incredible and he was greeted like a rock star.

Obama's message at the rally was clear: People's savings are disappearing, loans are difficult to get, wages are at their lowest in a decade. "We must deal with the challenges facing the middle classes, everyday issues that matter such as healthcare. I am convinced we can steer ourselves out of this crisis because this is the USA," he told a packed convention centre.

To great applause he accused McCain of supporting Bush and of wanting to tax employees' healthcare benefits. He promised to provide relief to home owners and to give state and local governments $25 billion for infrastructural and environmental projects.

"I will take on corruption on Wall Street and Washington to ensure that such a crisis will never happen again in America," he said.

Many observers feel that Virginia will be harder to lose for the Republicans than Ohio. Yes, Virginians are feeling the economic effect of the financial crisis like everybody else in America but there have been fewer lay-offs in the manufacturing sector. And Virginia is a southern, conservative state, which has voted Republican for four decades.

Palin, for example, is adored by Republicans in this state and a recent rally she addressed in Richmond attracted over 35,000 people. And one cannot forget that in the 2000 election, Gore was ahead of Bush in the polls in Virginia by 10 points two weeks before the election, yet Bush still won the state.

Then, of course, there is the 'Bradley effect' that everybody talks about. Tom Bradley was an African-American mayor of Los Angeles who, running for Governor of California in 1982, saw his massive lead in the opinion polls disappear on election day, giving victory to his white rival, Republican George Deukmejian. The theory goes that some white voters tell opinion pollsters they will vote for a black candidate but on election day they just can't do it and instead vote for the white candidate.

Some people fear that the same thing could happen to Obama in the November 4 election, especially in a state like Virginia. It nearly happened in 1988 when Douglas Wilder (today mayor of Richmond) was running for governor. He saw his nine-point lead over his Republican opponent in the polls shrink to one per cent on election day, and he consequently became the country's first black governor.

However, Wilder was more conservative than Obama and worked hard to charm white working class voters - a group that has been divided over its support for Obama. According to the Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine, Wilder once told a group of striking miners: "I heard you boys would vote for a nigger before you'd vote for a Republican, and I'm here to tell you that this November, you're gonna get your chance."

The Republicans are certainly putting up a fight in Virginia. Gerry Scimeca, the Virginia Republican Party communications director in Richmond, says that although Obama is leading Virginia opinion polls, there is always a late movement in the state. "McCain is running on his record and there is a lot of enthusiasm for the Republicans in Virginia. Palin is very popular here and I believe we can win.

"I believe the turnout will be high on both sides, Republicans and Democrats, and that voters are concerned about issues such as the economy and taxes."

Tucker Watkins, the Republican leader of Virginia's fifth congressional district, believes the Republicans have a good chance of keeping their hold on the state. "I have never witnessed so much enthusiasm by Republicans in a presidential election. McCain's choice of Palin cemented his ties with the Republicans and I believe there will be a high turnout by Republicans. Obama's economic policies will be disastrous for businesses. I believe we will win in Virginia," he said.

(Anthony Manduca was one of 12 European journalists visiting the US on an election programme organised by the US Foreign Press Centre. The visit was also made possible thanks to the US Embassy in Malta)

It's the economy, stupid!

Throughout my visit to Ohio and Virginia it was evident that the economy was by far the single most important issue in this historic presidential election. The financial crisis has negatively impacted many people who are scared of losing their jobs - and therefore their healthcare benefits, as well as not being able to pay their mortgages.

Clinton's 1992 campaign message, 'It's the economy, stupid!', could not be more appropriate for this election. Obama continues to lead by as much as 10 points in some polls, and this is primarily because the economy is the dominant issue in this campaign.

During a visit to Zogby International, an American market research and opinion polling firm in Washington DC, the company's latest opinion poll showed Obama enjoying 48.2 per cent support in contrast to McCain's 44 per cent.

The survey clearly showed that the economy is by far the most important issue in the election with 62 per cent of respondents citing it as their main concern.

The war in Iraq came a distant second with nine per cent followed by the threat of a terrorist attack on the US with eight per cent. Healthcare (seven per cent), the environment (two per cent), energy prices (two per cent) and immigration (two per cent) were other highlighted issues.

The opinion poll also showed that 47 per cent of the voters believed Obama to be the best candidate to handle America's economic crisis, compared to 43 per cent for McCain. Ninety-two per cent had a negative view on the country's economic policy and a majority of Americans (52 per cent) now give their personal financial situation a negative rating.

The polls highlighted that three in four voters believe their country is heading in the wrong direction, and perhaps most significantly, 64 per cent of Republicans now believe their country is on the wrong track. Bush's job approval ratings hit a new record low of 21 per cent; however, the ratings of Congress, which is controlled by the Democratic Party, has also fallen to its previous record low of nine per cent.

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