By James Oliphant
October 28, 2008
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Here’s one random sampling from a battleground state, with some margin for error.
“I just want it to end,” my father says. “Make it stop.”
The phone has just rung, and he knows the number. Knows not to answer. “It’s just them,” he mutters.
“Them,” by the way, is a non-partisan designation. When it comes to wanting to be left alone, my father is politically agnostic. It really isn’t his fault. He’s lived here going on 40 years and has watched, helplessly, as his once-sleepy town sprouted up around him, went major-league and now is suffering the consequences of being the most divided large city in one of the most divided states in the union.
Throw in advances in technology and the transformational effect of hundreds of millions in cash, and there is literally nowhere to hide. John McCain, Barack Obama and their surrogates can’t be ducked or dodged. They’re on television, on the phone, pounding on doors, sending mail. When it’s one-and-one, they call that felony stalking. Writ large, it’s the modern political campaign in a make-or-break state.
There’s no relief. Michelle Obama was here Friday. McCain Sunday. It’s like the old joke about the weather here. Don’t like it? Wait.
Early morning. As the sun peeks through the curtains of the hotel, the TV blares: “John McCain. Instead of fixing health care. He wants to tax it.” You were expecting The Wiggles?
You jump in the car, switch on the radio. “There are 100 good reasons for how you vote this year and only one bad reason: prejudice.” This is how to feel bad about yourself before breakfast.
Polls show Ohio to be in a dead heat. But the pressure really is on McCain. He has to win this state, a famous national bellwether, to have any shot at the White House. That’s why he and Sarah Palin have been coming here so often they should have Buckeyes painted on their cheeks like the local sophomores. Central Ohio would like to help McCain. He still leads in this region, narrowly. This has always been a place big on national security, cool on taxes, with a tendency to go with the reliable over the unknown.
But the economy trumps everything. And Columbus, too, has changed. Years ago, the heroes were Ronald Reagan and Jim Rhodes, the tough-talking Republican who served for 16 years and sent the National Guard to the protests at Kent State. Now there’s a Democratic governor, Ted Strickland, and an African-American mayor, Michael Coleman. Meanwhile, during the last eight years, the state has suffered the most job losses since the Great Depression.
Conservative radio talk show hosts, though, have not surrendered. The chatter on a local station one weekend manages to connect Obama to William Ayers, black separatists, socialism, Al Qaeda, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and ACORN in the space of 10 minutes. His callers sound fearful. One labels Obama a fake Christian. “He believes we are all divine at birth,” the caller says. “But there was only one who was that and his name was Jesus Christ.”
Neither has the local Republican Party given in. It’s been busy trying to get lists of newly registered voters that the Democratic secretary of state, Jennifer Brunner, allegedly failed to match with records in federal databases. If the GOP can get the names, they can attempt to perhaps disqualify some of the voters.
But its lawsuit was halted by the U.S. Supreme Court. Now, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) has asked the White House to send in the Justice Department before Election Day. One resident took matters into his own hands. On Friday, he was arrested for calling Brunner’s office and threatening to kill her.
That same day, the city newspaper, the Dispatch, reported that the state was investigating whether its computer records were illegally searched to gather personal information on “Joe the Plumber”—Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, the McCain mascot who lives near Toledo. The next day, Wurzelbacher told Fox News that he was considering running for Congress.
It all cried out for a diversion, which is why my father and 100,000 others were eagerly awaiting Saturday night’s Penn State-Ohio State football game. But as we entered the bowels of the famous horseshoe, we heard a familiar refrain echoing through the cavernous grandstand. And it wasn’t “Hang on Sloopy.”
“I’m John McCain and I approved this message.”
By the way, OSU lost to Penn State—and it was the Nittany Lions’ first win in Columbus in 30 years. Change, it appears, has arrived.
Tribune correspondent James Oliphant, who lived in Columbus for 20 years, was home over the weekend.
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