Fertile ground. The success of Rep. Zack Space, a Democrat elected to represent the formerly Republican 18th District in 2006, gives Obama organizers hope. Space benefited greatly from corruption charges leveled against longtime GOP Rep. Bob Ney, who resigned in disgrace. But Space says that his victory was no fluke and that the area will be fertile ground for Obama and the Democrats this fall. "People care less about the party labels than about jobs and the economy," Space observes. Gasoline prices and healthcare also are important concerns, and voters increasingly associate their personal economic woes with the policies of President Bush and, by party association, John McCain, according to Space.
Democrats think the county's economic ills should make most working-class and rural people receptive to Obama's call for change. But he apparently hasn't gotten much traction so far. There are no reliable polls for Muskingum, but McCain and Obama are locked in a dead heat statewide. The latest Quinnipiac survey in late July gave Obama 46 percent and McCain 44 percent. Obama lost Muskingum County and the state of Ohio overwhelmingly to Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary March 4. This defeat was a warning sign that Obama is in for trouble here, at least among working-class and rural voters.
Yet things aren't totally bleak for him. His state staff is enthusiastic and committed to finding a way for him to win, such as by developing a strong organization even in areas which have gone Republican in the past, such as Muskingum. At a meeting of the county Democratic central committee, held at a VFW hall, there was considerable optimism that Obama could replicate the organization of Gov. Ted Strickland, Sen. Sherrod Brown, and Space, three Democrats who won in 2006.
After the meeting, several committee members said that Obama could carry the county but that it will be tough. Bill Dunlap, a 57-year-old healthcare administrator, says many people think Obama is "an empty suit." Dunlap was a strong supporter of Clinton in the primary, and he still has personal doubts about Obama, calling him "a bit elitist and aloof."
Even Zanesville Mayor Butch Zwelling, another Democrat, hasn't made up his mind. "I want to keep finding out about the candidates," he says. When Obama was at Eastside, he took the mayor aside and asked, "Can you tell me one thing that I could do for Zanesville" after becoming president? Zwelling, a 71-year-old former judge, told him it would be important to restore the $400,000 in block grants used for water and sewer projects that has been slashed to $144,000. Obama said he would remember. The candidate made a good impression, Zwelling says, but not good enough to win the mayor's endorsement yet—another indicator of Obama's problem erasing doubts, even within the Democratic base.