Working-Class and Rural Voters Could Make the Difference in Ohio and Pennsylvania

Obama and McCain are reaching out to these voters, hoping to win the pivotal states.

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ZANESVILLE, OHIO—Karen Wiseman is toting a plastic bag full of fresh corn and salad greens to her car as she leaves the local farm market when she stops to talk with a reporter. It turns out that she is the bearer of bad news for Barack Obama. Asked which presidential candidate she supports, the 63-year-old Democrat says, "Obama isn't it." She is concerned that the young senator from Illinois isn't experienced or tested enough to be president and that he is more than a bit out of the mainstream.

If Obama is to win the swing state of Ohio, carried narrowly by George W. Bush in 2004, he will have to either win this area in the state's conservative southeast, or minimize his losses here as he rolls up big majorities in Cleveland, Youngstown, Akron, and other urban areas. Obama's problem is that people such as Wiseman—the white working-class and rural voters who could make the difference—are either openly opposed to him or deeply distrustful. "It's not so much him but who's backing him," Wiseman says. "When I saw Oprah had endorsed him, that was it." In short, Wiseman says she isn't sure Obama would represent her interests. "I kind of liked Hillary," Wiseman adds, referring to Sen. Hillary Clinton, the former first lady who conceded the Democratic presidential nomination to Obama in June. What's wrong with him? "They say Obama doesn't salute the flag, and his religion is too much of a foreign thing," Wiseman explains, although she isn't sure where she heard that information. In fact, it's wrong: Obama does salute the flag and is a Christian.

Wiseman, who works cleaning hospital rooms, hopes the federal government will do more to help people in a precarious financial position like hers. "This world is not for working people, that's for sure," she says. Asked if John McCain would help, she replies, "I hope so, but no one person can do it.... I was raised to work. My mom and dad drummed it into me. Kids today don't feel that way."

Gerald Baker, 93, and his wife, Elizabeth, 91, both Republicans, are even more harsh toward Obama. "He makes good speeches, but I'd hate to see him as commander in chief," Gerald, a retired businessman wearing a white baseball cap bearing the words "Senior Citizen," says as he walks to his car from the farm market. "He has no experience. What's he done?" Adds Elizabeth: "He's just not presidential material. I don't see how anybody could say he is. It's the novelty of it.... He's wrong on the issues, too." McCain, however, is "an honest man" who has proved his fitness to be commander in chief over the years, Gerald Baker says. The Bakers note that jobs and energy prices are very important issues in the Zanesville area, and they express confidence that McCain would find a way to help.

That Obama has an uphill climb was underscored in interviews with community and political leaders of both parties and resonated across many age groups and demographics. "Being so young with so little experience, no one knows what he would really do in a given situation," says Bob Davidson, 53, executive director of the Eastside Community Ministry in Zanesville, which Obama visited July 1 to give a speech on the importance of such faith-based charities. Eastside, sponsored by the Presbyterian Church, provides clothes, food, and emergency relief to poor people. Davidson says his community is mostly worried about the economy, and the biggest problem is providing "livable-wage jobs." He adds: "The government is not going to be able to do all of that. The community is important." The best solution, he argues, is for business to invest in the local area and create good jobs, a classic conservative idea that seems popular in the area.

Unemployment in Muskingum County, where Zanesville is located on the edge of Appalachia, rose to 8.1 percent in June, up from 7.4 percent in May and substantially higher than the national unemployment rate of 5.5 percent in both months. Muskingum's average household income was $36,037, about 25 percent below the national average of $48,451, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. More than 93 percent of the county is white, compared with 74 percent of the nation.