'Joe' framed debate for Ohio's small-town voters

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 16, 2008 

SPRINGFIELD, Ohio — Linda Copeland and Scott Winkle are the "Joe the plumbers" of Clark County, a slice of small-town Ohio with a record of backing presidential winners.

Thursday, the day after the last Barack Obama-John McCain debate, Copeland and Winkle had very different views about the presidential candidates' tax plans.

Copeland, who runs a small cleaning service, understood Democrat Obama's point that wealthy people and companies can "afford to pay a little more" tax so ordinary families can get a tax cut and better afford everyday expenses.

Winkle, however, part owner of a small communications firm, preferred Republican McCain's pledge to lower everyone's taxes.

"We're growing rapidly, and we're going to reach that threshold where we would pay more taxes under his (Obama's) plan," Winkle said of his Springfield firm. "We're not millionaires. We're not that big."

McCain made frequent references to "Joe the plumber," a Toledo man who wants to buy his own business, during the debate, and Obama, too, eventually began invoking his name. Their comments about Joe were widely discussed in some of this county's favorite gathering spots on Thursday.

Though Obama has a slight lead in most state polls, Ohio is still considered up for grabs. No one has won the presidency without winning Ohio since 1960, and that often means winning the economically and demographically diverse collection of smaller industrial towns and rural areas between Dayton and Columbus. Right in the middle is Springfield, a city of 62,000.

Clark County gave Bill Clinton a 4-point win in 1992 and a 10-point victory in 1996. Four years later, Al Gore beat George W. Bush by a fraction of a percentage point, and in 2004, Bush beat John Kerry by 2 points.

Clark County's diners and main streets serve as focus groups of sorts, and the talk Thursday was that while Obama may have the edge in polls, he didn't close the deal Wednesday night.

"Obama just gives me a bad feeling in my stomach and McCain is too old," said Nicole Ratliff, a cable-TV service sales representative, who's still undecided.

The overriding concern here is the economy. Clark County has lost hundreds of transportation-equipment manufacturing jobs this decade, but gained some in educational services such as professional development and helping special needs children. The county's August unemployment rate of 7.5 percent was slightly above the state average and ranked 46th highest of the state's 88 counties. Nationally, the jobless number is 6.1 percent.

People here, like all over America, are anxious as they see the markets reeling.

A lot of folks at Becky's Cafe, or at Fountain on Main, both in Springfield, or at the Speedway convenience store just off Interstate 70, were uneasy about Obama's lack of experience, and cited the debate tiff over Joe the plumber.

Sara Cannarozzi, who works for a small promotional products firm, said after hearing about him, "I can't vote for Obama. He's a socialist. When he said he wants to redistribute the wealth of Joe the plumber, that did it."

Winkle, who voted for Gore in 2000 and Libertarian Michael Badnarik in 2004, also said hearing those views "sealed the deal for me. I'm with McCain."

Others saw the question differently. More tax cuts for more people means more customers and more earnings, they said.

"Obama's responses are very professional, and very measured," said Eugene Nevius, a municipal court judge. "He's showing he'll approach problems in a very thoughtful way."

Copeland, the cleaning business owner, agreed. She's up to 75 clients, and in a tough economy, she'd like any kind of help in getting more. For her, Obama's idea of "spreading the wealth" has appeal.

"I'm not doing too badly," she said, "but I could do better."

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