BY RICHELLE THOMPSON
The Cincinnati Enquirer
PORTSMOUTH -- Five minutes into the start of a 14-county tour, U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland's bus got stuck like a teeter-totter, balanced on a set of railroad tracks.
It wasn't how the Democratic incumbent planned to begin his sweep across the vast southern Ohio district. But Thursday's mishap was symbolic of the seesaw race to occupy one of the country's most competitive Congressional seats.
The district, with a slight Republican edge, has flip-flopped every two years since 1990. And experts say Tuesday's outcome is still up in the air.
Both candidates are looking for ways to tip the dead-heat race in their favor. In the final 72 hours of the campaign, Mr. Strickland and challenger Lt. Gov. Nancy Hollister are calling on the big guns to rally voters.
First Lady Hillary Clinton will visit Athens County Sunday with Mr. Strickland, while GOP budget guru and central Ohio Congressman John Kasich will speak today in Mrs. Hollister's hometown of Marietta.
But an Enquirer trip through the 6th District shows most voters are more concerned about jobs, economy and schools than powerhouse politicians. That mirrors the findings of a recent Gannett News Service poll that found education, economy, taxes and health care top the list of issues voters across America want the federal government to address.
In southeastern Ohio, poverty often eclipses the beauty of the Appalachian foothills. Some homes look like residents have set up permanent yard sales. One sign spotted in Scioto County advertises: "We take junk."
September's unemployment rates rose to 10.1 percent in Meigs County, the second highest in the state. And only two counties in the 6th district, Clinton and Warren, had unemployment rates below the state and national average.
Sixth District voters have a constant refrain: Give us more jobs.
"We need all the help we can get down here," Portsmouth resident Robert K. Kuhn said. "Everybody forgets about this part of the state."
Except for Mr. Strickland, Mr. Kuhn said. The Lucasville native fought for a $400 million project to build uranium-recyling plants in Ohio and Kentucky, a measure Mr. Strickland said would create 120 permanent and 200 construction jobs.
"He's earned another trip," Mr. Kuhn said.
Dr. Chris Rink disagrees. He moved to Portsmouth about the time Mr. Strickland took over the 6th District reins from Frank Cremeans in 1996. He has seen few changes in the district's largest city, with about 22,000 people.
Dr. Rink believes Mrs. Hollister will be more aggressive in bringing jobs to the region than Mr. Strickland.
Other residents are so discouraged by the depressed economy, they've decided not to vote at all.
"It don't matter to me who wins," said Jerry Russell, wearing a threadbare Harley Davidson T-shirt outside Portsmouth's Community Action Health Clinic.
While he believes attracting jobs should be the first priority for either candidate, Mr. Russell is also confident "it don't do no good to vote. Not anymore."
Edna Hughes won't visit the voting booth either. At age 75, she spends most of her days scouring Dumpsters for aluminum cans. Recycling them helps supplement her meager Social Security check.
Her message to the winner: "It ain't fair to work all your life and still not have enough money to live on. They need to change that." Sue Lazzaro of Chillicothe expects she will vote Tuesday, but she's not sure which button she'll push. Mrs. Lazzaro only knows she wants the 6th District representative to focus on education for the next two years.
"We need to find out how to get more money and not use it as a political football," she said.
At northern Clinton County's 68 Family Restaurant, conversations normally center on the weather, soybeans and corn -- not politics. Clinton County resident Dave Chapman is a registered Republican, but he may stray from the party line Tuesday. Mr. Chapman is so disappointed with the GOP's emphasis on the Monica Lewinsky scandal and not on the issues that he "may get into the poll booth and be so mad at the Republicans, I vote for Strickland."
Both candidates have wooed Warren County voters. Though the county is largely Republican, Mr. Strickland hopes he can sway a few moderates. Stealing from Mrs. Hollister's GOP base is critical in an election likely to be decided by a slim margin.
Mrs. Hollister is trying to shore up support within her party, particularly among staunch anti-abortion supporters who disdain her stance on legalized abortions. Mrs. Hollister got a boost last week when Michael Azinger, one of her primary opponents and a strong anti-abortion supporter, offered his endorsement.