By Gregory Korte
and Jim Siegel
Enquirer staff writers
It wasn't lost on the people of eastern Ohio that they were witnessing a once-in-a-lifetime political event Saturday.
The last time a sitting president visited this part of the country was 1912, when Cincinnati's William Howard Taft sought re-election in a whistle-stop tour of Ohio's small towns.
And if you don't count native son John Glenn, the astronaut-senator who campaigned briefly for president in 1984, the last non-incumbent to campaign for president here was Henry Wallace in 1947.
But never before have two presidential candidates crossed paths here on the same day.
President Bush and Sen. John Kerry's bus caravans just barely missed passing each other in eastern Ohio on Saturday.
The circumstance led a Bush campaign spokesman to quip that the Secret Service's agent-in-charge for the region must be chugging antacid.
Both campaigns professed that the scheduling was a coincidence, and that they didn't plan the trip in response to what the other was doing.
So if eastern Ohio has been neglected by presidential campaigns for so long, why are they getting so much love now?
First, it borders two other battleground states. "It's a testament to how important this area is - the West Virginia panhandle, western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio," said Bush campaign spokesman Kevin Madden.
"I feel like we're running 20 city council races across Ohio. And that's a good thing. That's the only way you're going to win Ohio."
Second, if Ohio is as close as the pollsters and pundits predict, neither candidate can afford to take Ohio's rural areas for granted. In 2000, Bush won the state by less than four percentage points.
No Republican has been elected president without winning Ohio.
Swing voters are few and far between in eastern Ohio, said Robert Kline, an adjunct professor of political science at Ohio University's Zanesville campus. That's why campaigns usually spend their time in Ohio's big media markets - Democrats in Cleveland and the cities, Republicans in Cincinnati and the suburbs.
Eastern Ohio is mostly conservative - but in a different way than the suburbs.
"This part of the state, you're going to run into niche issues. Steel. Guns. Social issues, gay marriage and things like that," Kline said. "It's a very strong pro-war area, but they want to make sure we don't have troops there forever, as a permanent occupation in Iraq."
It's that socially conservative streak that Bush was appealing to when he gave an impassioned defense of gun rights Saturday in Cambridge, where he spoke after a morning appearance in Canton.
"We stand for the Second Amendment, which gives every American the individual right to bear arms," he said.
"I've got a record on that issue. It stands in stark contrast to my opponent."
Kerry was at a late rally in Zanesville, where he addressed an estimated 10,000 people at the Muskingum County Courthouse. He hammered hard at the loss of jobs to other countries.
"We're going to close the loopholes that actually have you rewarding companies that take their jobs overseas,'' he said.
"No American worker will ever be asked to subsidize his own job loss again.''
Kerry will continue campaigning this morning at a church service in Springfield and a campaign rally in Bowling Green.
Waiting in the rain for Kerry at the Muskingum County Courthouse in Zanesville, New Lexington insurance agent Don Ellis said he's worried about the region's loss of jobs.
"It seems like Bush has spent all his time defending the last four years, rather than talking about the future,'' he said. "I think the economy has to drive the vote. There are too many people in bad shape.''
At the Bush rally in Cambridge was Edward Mitchell, a 55-year-old Vietnam veteran and maintenance worker from Morgan County.
"The economy is bad no matter where you go. It's not the president's fault," he said. "I have two kids in the military, and he'll give them a raise. Pride and respect, that's what the Bush name means to me."
Most of the partisans at either rally wouldn't think of going to hear the other candidate speak. Jim Crannell, a government teacher at the vocational school in Zanesville, was an exception.
Still, he was more at home with the Kerry crowd, and said the Bush supporters were "very negative, nasty and critical."
"He said employment is increasing. Let's ask the 900 people getting laid off at Longaberger if employment is up,'' Crannell said of the basket company in nearby Dresden.
Some residents stayed away from both events, either because of the rain or ambivalence. Still, outside Shegog's IGA in New Concord, voters said they felt the whirlwind of campaigning around them.
Worley Berrisford, an 88-year-old retired schoolteacher who hasn't voted for a Democrat since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, said he won't give Kerry a second look.
"We need somebody in the Oval Office with integrity and honesty, and values that speak to us in our lives,'' said Berrisford.
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