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.
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.