Cover

THE WAR NEXT DOOR

The U.S. race is tight, vicious—and vital to the rest of the world. Welcome to Ohio, where the battle will be won or lost

JONATHON GATEHOUSE November 1 2004
Cover

THE WAR NEXT DOOR

The U.S. race is tight, vicious—and vital to the rest of the world. Welcome to Ohio, where the battle will be won or lost

JONATHON GATEHOUSE November 1 2004

HERE’S SOME GOOD NEWS for George W. Bush. On the whole, the people of Mesopotamia appear to be committed to the peaceful resolution of the issues that are tearing their country apart.

Of course, it would be even more welcome if we were talking about the Sunnis and Shias of Iraq, rather than the 3,100, largely Amish, residents of a quaintly named farming township in northeastern Ohio. But given the volatility and general snarkiness of American public opinion in the run-up to the Nov. 2 election, one suspects the Republican President—and his Democratic challenger John Kerry—are taking comfort wherever they can find it.

With only days remaining in what has been the costliest—and arguably bitterest—campaign in U.S. history, the outcome remains impossible to predict, momentum shifting with each new poll. There are growing fears that 2000’s Florida ballot-counting fiasco will be replicated in at least a half-dozen other battleground states like Ohio, Iowa, Oregon and Pennsylvania as the parties scrap for every electoral college vote. Accusations of fraud and intimidation are already being levelled as both sides prepare armies of lawyers for polling day, and the judicial battles beyond. And all the relentless negativity seems to be taking its toll on the voters, with most now harbouring “unfavourable” views of both candidates, and strong doubts about their sunny promises of a better tomorrow.

Outside his home near the crossroads of this many-horse but no-stoplight town, Richard Miller admits his decision hasn’t been easy. “I’m a Republican, but this time I’ve got to go with the Democrats.” It’s not so much that the brush-cut 58-year-old likes Kerry as that he’s come to distrust Bush. Ohio lost 237,000 jobs in the past four years—many of them well-paid blue-collar manufacturing positions—and the U.S. economy continues to stumble. His brother-in-law in Michigan just saw his employer relocate to Mexico, and Miller fears his own job at a local rubber factory may also be destined for cheaper climes.

Then there’s Iraq. His future son-in-law, a member of the National Guard, is being deployed soon after the election. As a Vietnam vet, Miller remembers all too well what it was like to fight a war that much of the country didn’t believe in. And he’s skeptical about why America’s pursuit of Osama bin Laden has taken a detour through Baghdad. “Bush isn’t worried about the little guy,” he says. “He’s worried about oil.”

Down the road, Linda Weaver has come to the opposite conclusion. Standing barefoot on the threshold of her trailer, the 40-year-old mother of three says she isn’t thrilled about what’s happening in the war, but gives the President full marks for the fight against terror. And if the economy isn’t great, she says, it has more to do with 9/11 than anything Bush has or hasn’t done. But what really counts for Weaver, and many of her neighbours in this deeply religious community, is knowing that the man in the Oval Office shares their beliefs. “I like his morals, the way he’s trying to keep family values, and his stance on capital punishment.”

Ohio is crucial. Conventional wisdom says the candidate who wins two of the three biggest battlegrounds takes the Oval Office. Bush is ahead in Florida, Kerry has the edge in Pennsylvania, but in Ohio the lead changes hands almost daily. No Republican has ever won the White House without the Buckeye State. Ohioans are being bombarded with political advertising, hounded by the parties. It’s becoming uncomfortable. People are treading carefully with their neighbours. The freewheeling political discussions that used to take place down at the local coffee shop and post office aren’t happening anymore. More lawns sport Halloween decorations than election signs. Embroiled in a growing conflict abroad, and deeply conflicted at home, people in Ohio and across America wonder what it will take to make them stand united again. And ask how, after the distance the country has travelled in the last four years, they find themselves right back where they started.

IN POLITICS, especially American politics, you dance with the ones that brung ya. Which is probably why Republicans in Columbus have unabashedly chosen to hold their open-to-the-public, debate-watching party in the clubhouse of a gated community in a wealthy suburb. (Local Democrats, also unflinchingly true to stereotype, are simultaneously gathering at a Steelworkers’ union hall.) The parking lot is filled with SUVs and luxury sedans. Inside, the crowd is a mix of well-heeled politicos and business people, sprinkled with a few earnest and pimply college students. There are two members of visible minorities present. One is a television reporter for the local NBC affiliate.

In 2000, George W. Bush promised “compassionate conservatism,” but four years later, these partisans are no longer in the mood to give quarter. They boo and heckle every time John Kerry appears on the TV. “More liberal BS,” one man shouts at the Massachusetts senator’s claim that Republican tax cuts have rewarded the rich. When Bush lands a well-timed zinger—“A plan is not a litany of complaints”—the room explodes in cheering and applause that would put a Jerry Springer audience to shame.

The thrust and parry is all good fun, but for many in the crowd the real attraction of the evening is the chance to meet a real, live West Wing celebrity. Peggy Noonan was a special assistant to Ronald Reagan, and chief speechwriter for George Bush, the elder. Now a pundit-for-hire, she’s written five bestselling political books, and profited handsomely from her association with what many Republicans view as the Golden Age. Noonan, wearing a large W-04 brooch on her elegantly tailored suit, is predicting something beyond the expectations of Bush’s most fervent supporters—a blowout victory. The neck-and-neck polls just aren’t a true reflection of where the American public stands, she argues. The revolution isn’t over. “This is not a 50/50 country,” she says. “I am more and more convinced that this is a conservative country, in some very profound ways.” The Democrats, in her view, are out of touch with the heartland on issues like abortion, gay marriage and the war on terror.

Bush’s popularity has been battered by the Iraq war and the sluggish economy, but in the end, that’s not what Americans will cast their ballot on, argues Noonan. They vote for the man they think will act decisively to keep them safe. And the polls that consistently suggest voters see Kerry as the more intelligent candidate? “We like smart, but smart is never number one with us. It just ain’t,” says Noonan. “Americans look at the President and think, ‘He can hire smart.’”

It may be mystifying to foreigners, but life experience, policies and general world knowledge are far down the checklists of many U.S. voters. As a combined political leader, chief warrior and national father figure, the idealized occupant of the White House embodies a host of particularly American values—fearlessness, horse sense, gumption. “For Congress, people vote on local issues, but the presidency is a different kind of institution,” says Ryan Barilleaux, chairman of the political science department at Ohio’s Miami University. “People put a certain weight on these intangible qualities we call looking presidential. It’s the way a candidate acts, speaks and presents himself.”

In Republican eyes, this is Bush’s crucial advantage. For four years, through the worst terrorist attack in American history and its far-flung after-battles, he’s talked the talk, and walked the walk. What much of the rest of the world sees as dangerous swagger, they view as admirable toughness. The vast unpopularity of this President abroad, and increasingly at home—his approval numbers now hover around 50 per cent, a threshold below which incumbents are rarely re-elected—is seen as a badge of honour, proof that he leads by conviction, not polls.

That’s the profound belief that has Jeanette Steiner volunteering six days a week on the Bush/Cheney campaign in suburban Cincinnati. A 60-year-old retired firefighter with more than a passing resemblance to Barbara Bush (the President himself remarked on it when she met him at a rally), she makes hundreds of phone calls a night on W’s behalf. “It’s his stick-to-it-iveness,” she says, explaining the appeal. “He’s the first President we’ve had in a long time willing to do something like go to Iraq.” In the past, Steiner has strayed from the Republican fold—she voted for Clinton in ’92—and, being pro-choice and in favour of stem-cell research, she’s not entirely on board with the party platform. But 9/11 still reverberates. “For me, what’s at stake is the survival, not just of this country, but the entire world,” she says. “I don’t think John Kerry has any concept of what it takes. I’ve never been so afraid of another human being in all my life.”

Republicans aren’t shy about exploiting such concerns. In a campaign visit to Ohio last week, Dick Cheney raised the spectre of terrorists sneaking nuclear, chemical or biological weapons into American cities, and suggested Kerry wouldn’t be “tough and aggressive” enough to combat such a threat. Bush’s backers aren’t reticent either. The National Rifle Association has put up billboards in swing states picturing a French poodle wearing a Kerry for President sweater. “That dog don’t hunt,” reads the caption.

The party’s chosen wedge issue—gay marriage—is on the ballot in Ohio in the form of a proposed amendment to the state constitution banning same-sex unions. Phil Burress, chairman of the Ohio Campaign to Protect Marriage, says his group will distribute 2.5 million leaflets to churches before election day, and contact every household in the state to urge people to vote. While the group is officially politically neutral, Burress makes no secret of which candidate he and like-minded fundamentalist Christians support. “In America, we have a mushy middle that might vote for someone because of their hairdo,” he says. “But this is the most important election in my lifetime. We’ve never had a bigger spread between the parties. And the fact that John Kerry might get elected scares me to death.”

IT’S A PLACE that has known better days. The once stately clapboard houses in this downtown Cleveland neighbourhood are mostly crumbling; many are boarded up. Car hulks sit rusting in front yards. Men push shopping carts filled with scavenged bits of metal, on their way to make a deal at the local scrapyard. But if America is really as divided as polls suggest, Cleveland—which has the dubious honour of being the country’s poorest big city—is where the race for the presidency may find its finish line. In 2000, Bush beat Gore by 165,000 votes in Ohio, a loss that Democrats are keen to avenge. This time, aggressive voter registration drives have added 700,000 people to the state rolls, many of them African-American.

Sitting in his wood-panelled study at the Antioch Baptist Church, Rev. Marvin McMickle presses his fingertips together and ponders why one Ivy League-educated scion of a privileged family is preferable to the other. “I think, as with many other people, I start from a negative—he’s not George Bush.” John Kerry may not have the answers to the problems plaguing America’s inner cities, says the pastor, but at least they’re on his radar screen. “I don’t think we’re even an afterthought for the President.” According to the most recent census data, 46.9 per cent of children in Cleveland live below the poverty line. The spending per student in inner-city schools is less than half that of Cleveland’s wealthy suburbs. And thousands of families count themselves among the 45 million Americans with no health insurance.

Yet these issues have rarely been aired in a campaign dominated by talk of foreign wars—past and present—and tax cuts at home. “The notion of forgoing anything personal for the sake of the national good, or making whole those who have been hurt by the system, I don’t think is even on the table,” says McMickle. “But Kerry and John Edwards seem willing to push the nation in that direction. And this community will vote in numbers with that hope.”

Whatever their motivations, Kerry-leaning voters here will find it hard to ignore the call to arms in the campaign’s waning days. Lefty public interest groups, unions, even caravans of celebrities—Hilary Swank, Martin Sheen, the weirdly ubiquitous Kevin Bacon, Michael Gross and Meredith Baxter from the Ohio-set TV show Family Ties—have been on the trail reminding people of their civic duty to throw the bums out. George Soros, perhaps the lone anti-Bush billionaire, has given almost US$24 million to Democratic-friendly groups. The International Association of Fire Fighters has its Ohio members knocking on doors as part of a US$10 million national effort to beat the Republicans. At a whistle-stop rally in Columbus, Harold Schaitberger, the union president, talks about why so many of his members have turned against Bush. “We’re sick of a President who is tall on the rhetoric of supporting our first responders, but falls so short when it comes to providing the resources,” he says. Coming from a profession that is widely respected and admired—the heroes of 9/11—such expressions of disappointment may well resonate with voters.

Some interventions are more welcome than others, however. A campaign by Britain’s Guardian newspaper encouraging readers to email residents of Clark County, near Dayton, explaining why the U.S. election matters to them, met a predictable response. “Real Americans aren’t interested in your pansy-ass, tea-sipping opinions,” reads one of the politer replies. “If you want to save the world, begin with your own worthless corner of it.” The overwhelmed paper abandoned the project.

The Democrats will mount an unprecedented grassroots effort, mobilizing more than 100,000 volunteers across the state. A successful legal challenge of some dodgy signatures on nomination papers has removed Ralph Nader from Ohio ballots, leaving the anti-Bush forces no other option. “The Republicans know that if all of our supporters come out, they will lose, and lose badly,” boasts Brendan Cull, the Kerry campaign’s Ohio spokesman.

Still, in an election shaping up as a referendum on Bush’s leadership, rather than a vote on Kerry’s contrasting vision, nothing is certain. As the country’s divides—rich/poor, left/right, urban/rural, war/anti-war—continue to widen, political peace at home could prove even harder to find. Even in the small-town heartland, there are now two Americas. A couple of blocks from the pretty brick buildings of Wilmington College, Mark Donovan stands in line outside a soup kitchen. The 56-year-old has been out of work for three years, since he lost the job he held for 28 years at a local plastic factory. “We need to get Bush out of there—he’s done enough damage,” he says. Donovan will be voting. He’d like to get the message out to his friends and family, but it’s hard. In a country that’s spent $120 billion on Iraq, he can’t afford a phone.

WHAT THE NEIGHBOURS THINK

A new Rogers Media poll shows that Canadians have a clear presidential choice

Which candidate would you vote for?

John Kerry 54% / George W. Bush 16%

Who would have the best relationship with Canada?

Kerry 62% / Bush 18%

How has your opinion of the U.S. changed over the past four years?

Improved 12% / Worsened 66%

If it got worse, why?

Actions of Bush and his administration 76% / Attitudes of the American people 13%

Depending on who is elected, what will the world be like in four years?

More dangerous with Bush 62% / More dangerous with Kerry 15%

SOURCE: POLLARA INC.; SAMPLE SIZE 1,260; MARGIN OF ERROR ±2.8%