By Carl Weiser
Enquirer Washington Bureau
YOUNGSTOWN - In this city of industrial ruins and empty lots, the presidential race has only one issue.
"The economy, obviously. So I can stay in business," said Terry Salem, washing the glass doors of her restaurant in Youngstown's deserted downtown. "I just want them to get some jobs back in this area. And for real, not just talk."
And in the past week, folks in Youngstown have heard a lot of talk from the Democratic candidates for president.
This Democratic stronghold is a key to Tuesday's Democratic primary. That's why front-runner John Kerry was here a week earlier, visiting an abandoned steel mill in nearby Struthers and talking to workers at an aluminum plant there.
North Carolina Sen. John Edwards got cheers when he spoke to striking titanium workers in nearby Niles, then drew an overflow crowd to a Teamsters Hall here.
His message - that he opposed free-trade agreements that Kerry supported, and that he grew up poor while Kerry grew up rich - appeals to residents.
"He talks to us like he's one of us," said Pat Sabol, 65, a counter clerk at Struthers News and Beverage. She knows the story of Edwards' dad working in a mill and losing his job when the mill shut down.
"Just like here," she said.
"Trade is a big issue with everyone," said Michelle Deramo, 43, who is studying to be a medical assistant. "Why does it have to be so hard on us? We're the ones getting kicked all the time." She said she'll probably support Edwards.
"I just think he's a more down-to-earth guy," said Jim Danko, owner of The Hub restaurant in downtown Youngstown. "He knows more about everyday people than Kerry does. ... NAFTA is the ruination of this country."
Absolutely no one here has a kind word to say about the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Kerry voted for in 1993. Edwards wasn't in the Senate but said he would have voted against it.
Even Bill Burga, president of the state AFL-CIO, while watching Kerry at a campaign event here, said, "NAFTA put this area under." But the labor group has backed Kerry, forgiving him for his vote and saying it believes he has since come to realize NAFTA's flaws.
For Edwards, Ohio is either his last stand or, as his campaign prefers to put it, the turning point.
It's where they plan to upend Kerry's momentum, winning this bellwether state, then sweeping big primaries in Florida and Texas the next week, and taking Illinois after that, according to Edwards campaign manager Nick Baldick.
Edwards' backers cite enthusiastic crowds at appearances in Youngstown and Columbus, a rising raft of endorsements, and poll numbers that are creeping up - though all still show Edwards trailing Kerry by double digits. Both candidates are running ads criticizing the loss of jobs in Ohio, especially manufacturing jobs.
If Edwards can pull off a win in Ohio, it would be a whole new race, said Henry Brady, a University of California-Berkeley expert on presidential primaries. But if Kerry wins, that essentially would seal the nomination.
One wild card: What will happen to the former backers of Howard Dean? Nationally and in Ohio, some former Dean campaign leaders have endorsed Edwards. Some have sworn loyalty to Dean and plan to vote for him even though he is no longer a candidate.
"We're doing this so that Dean has as many delegates as possible at the convention in July, so that the voice of the Dean movement is heard and we have some impact on the Democratic platform," said Lynn Worpenberg of Cincinnati, a Dean loyalist.
One theme, many venues
But the single biggest factor clearly will be jobs. That's why Kerry organized an Ohio Jobs Tour that hit Struthers, Cleveland and Toledo, and why his ads here are about the job losses under Bush.
There's no question the state and the country are losing factory jobs. Numbers vary, but in the past three years the state has lost more than 100,000 manufacturing jobs - and that's according to the Republican governor, Bob Taft. The economy here is such a volatile issue that Taft himself convened a special Jobs Cabinet this month.
"The facts are the facts," he said at the opening meeting. "We haven't had job growth in Ohio."
The why is more complicated.
A report last week from Policy Matters Ohio found that the state had lost 45,734 jobs as a direct result of international trade in the past eight years, a loss that hit in almost every county in the state. The loss accelerated after 1999.
But even that report noted that the 45,734 figure accounts for only a sixth of the lost manufacturing jobs in the state.
The decline in manufacturing jobs, both nationally and in Ohio, began in 1979. Those jobs even rose, temporarily, in the years following NAFTA's approval.
The state's manufacturers themselves don't cite Mexico, Canada, or NAFTA as the problem.
"In the past year, two years, China has been what a lot of folks have been talking about," said Randy Leffler, spokesman for the Ohio Manufacturers Association. On China, Kerry and Edwards backed what is now called normal trade relations. It used to be called most favored nation status.
The state's manufacturers say solutions to the state's manufacturing crisis lie in curbing frivolous lawsuits, streamlining environmental regulations, and finding cheaper sources of energy.
In fact, some statistics show freer trade has been good for the state's manufacturers.
In the first seven years after NAFTA, Ohio's manufacturing exports jumped 49 percent. In the past four years, its manufacturing exports have increased more than any state. Its top two markets for exports today are Canada and Mexico, according to the federal International Trade Administration.
But those numbers carry little comfort in the Mahoning Valley.
Youngstown's decline began long before NAFTA. In the early 1980s, Youngstown's unemployment rate hit 20 percent. The unemployment rate this past December was 6.8 percent.
That figure, higher than the state and national numbers, is deceptively low. As the jobs have disappeared, so have the people as they move to find work. Mahoning County has lost about a sixth of its population since 1970, and the state projects it to lose people over at least the next 30 years.
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