The faltering U.S. economy and the loss of manufacturing jobs in the Midwestern U.S. state of Ohio are dominating the presidential election contest there, and that could spell trouble for Republican candidate John McCain. McCain needs to win the Ohio vote to have any hope of becoming the next president. Analysts are keeping a close eye on the state, which has gone for the winner in the last 11 presidential elections. Experts say social issues have helped swing the state to the Republican side in the last two elections. But as VOA's Jim Fry reports, economic issues are on the minds of Ohio voters this year, and that could help Democratic candidate Barack Obama.
Ron Davis started his career as a steelworker in Ohio 29 years ago. Davis, who is president of the local branch of the United Steel Workers Union, just learned that 350 people who work in his plant's remaining building are going to be laid off.
"I've got family and friends that are working in there, people that I've known for many years," said Ron Davis. "And their future's the one I'm worried about."
That worry is translating into action at the local Union hall where members who usually support Republicans are campaigning for Democratic candidates.
Ron Davis says that this year, things are different.
"This year, the scales are tipped," he said. "And I think you're going to see a lot of Republicans voting for Obama this year."
Presidential elections are usually hard-fought battles in Ohio, and public opinion polls show that the race between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama is close.
Rural central Ohio often goes Republican. Most of the big cities - Cleveland in the northeast, Columbus in the middle - lately have supported Democrats. So do industrial towns, such as Youngstown in the northeast.
During his campaign visits to the state, Senator Obama has focused on the economic crisis he says is the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
"I don't have to tell you, Ohio, 760,000 workers have lost their jobs so far this year," said Barack Obama.
Senator McCain has tried to counter that message, warning Ohio voters that Obama would increase their taxes.
"He believes in redistributing the wealth not in policies that grow our economy and create jobs and opportunities for all Americans," said John McCain.
Around the city of Youngstown, many manufacturing jobs have been lost. An aluminum plant on the outskirts of the city closed last year. Although Democrats are running strong here, retired union leader, Mike Rubicz, says many voters feel conflicted.
"Because on one hand, there's a concern about Obama in terms of his experience and the fact that he's a black man and, at the same time, they don't see that McCain really has a program to help them," said Mike Rubicz.
Although Democrats appear to be using the faltering economy to their advantage, Youngstown Republicans like McCain volunteer Tracey Winbush say they are making headway.
"It's the economy," said Tracey Winbush. "It is social issues."
"We pray for the president," said Chuck Michaelis. "We pray for the vice president."
Chuck Michaelis leads a Wednesday evening prayer group. Religion is a powerful political motivator in Ohio, especially among abortion opponents like Kevin Dill.
"I probably lean more towards the Republican side," said Kevin Dill. "But I would say that's mainly because I have been more impressed with Sarah Palin."
Despite the efforts of John McCain and his vice presidential running mate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, many Democrats say they will vote for Barack Obama and his running mate Senator Joe Biden.
And while many social conservatives favor John McCain, some, like Diana Anderson, are reconsidering.
"Ya, I had to relook at things and study harder and I'm back to where I'm definitely going to vote for Obama," said Diana Anderson.
Opinion polls show the race between McCain and Obama is still too close to call, as Ohio's wrenching economic transformation will play a key role in the election. Both candidates are counting on victory in Ohio to give them the edge in the state-by-state battle to win the 270 electoral votes necessary to claim the White House.