COLUMBUS, OHIO—The American Midwest seems fat and content in this Olympic summer. The talk is of Michael Phelps and the upstart U.S. water polo team. The fields and fairways are green; there has been plenty of rain around here. The election seems far away.
Yet the weekend's newspapers contain some notable items: Unemployment in Ohio has hit 7.2 percent, and Barack Obama, according to some polls, is faring better among more conservative religious voters—observant Catholics and evangelicals—than might be expected.
I got here Friday on my cross-country journey to Denver, nursing the aged Mustang ragtop through the hills of West Virginia and out onto the broad, fertile plain of southern Ohio, through Athens, to Columbus.
Disgruntled Ohioans booted the Republican Party in the 2006 election, tired of corruption and an economic downturn. The unemployment stats show that lunch-bucket woes continue. And so the ubiquitous campaign TV commercials (was that John McCain anchoring the 400-meter relay?) are all about money. Obama says he'll produce good-paying jobs; McCain says Obama will raise taxes.
If Obama is indeed connecting with the socially conservative voters of southern Ohio (polling wizard Peter Hart's bellwether for the presidential election), then things look good for the Democrats. The local papers note that the last time unemployment was this high, Bill Clinton whipped George H. W. Bush.
But whenever I raise the topic of the election, I get a cool response about Obama. People have heard a lot about him, much of it confusing and negative. They are ready for change, but Obama is still a great unknown.
So, despite the Democratic advantages, Obama's lead in the Ohio polls lies within the margin of error. And more than one person has expressed the belief to me that, behind the curtain in the polling booth, his or her neighbors won't vote for an African-American presidential candidate. Even here, in cosmopolitan Columbus.
Barring some unexpected gaffe or international crisis, it now looks like the election will turn on five upcoming moments: when Obama chooses a running mate, makes his convention speech, and goes one-on-one with McCain in the three presidential debates.
And I'm getting the feeling, talking as I travel, that Obama will have to navigate these five moments flawlessly if he is to be president. I don't think he has a margin of error.