YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Please, Hillary Clinton urged the crowd in this battered industrial city, "I know there are still people who have to be convinced in this valley."
Are there ever. That's why the New York senator is barnstorming the state, trying to persuade white, older, Catholic voters who overwhelmingly backed her in the March primary to support Barack Obama in two weeks.
Both Obama and Republican rival John McCain need help here because Ohio usually matters. Since 1960, no one has won the White House without winning this state. Real Clear Politics Saturday found Obama averaged a 3.2 percentage point lead in recent polls, which found a large bloc of wavering and undecided voters remain up for grabs.
Many are folks who backed Clinton in the March primary, and on Friday, she was playing the I'm-one-of-you card. Her Youngstown State University crowd was warmed up by native Ed O'Neill, best known for playing irascible Joe Sixpack symbol Al Bundy on "Married with Children." Also there was popular Gov. Ted Strickland, who compared some of the current economic turmoil to the Great Depression.
But they found Obama's still a tough sell.
"I'm just not as comfortable with him as I am with Hillary," said Brenda Crouse, an academic adviser from Trumbull County. She could vote for McCain.
"I like Sarah Palin," she said, speaking of McCain's running mate. "She talks straight to the American people."
Selling McCain's difficult, too. "I look at him and I see President Bush on his shoulder," said Allie Mohammad, a disabled military veteran from Springfield.
More than any specific program or promise, people in Ohio want a candidate with credibility, said Robert Friedenberg, professor of communication at Miami University in Ohio.
"When you have two candidates who have never been administrators," he said, "credibility is an issue."
The most often heard complaints are that McCain is too old, too tied to Bush and has Palin, who has governed Alaska for less than two years, as a running mate.
Obama gets criticized for leaning toward socialism and associating with unsavory characters.
McCain is 72 and even some people sympathetic to him rue his choice of Palin.
"He's going to have a heart attack and that's gonna be it," said Aaron Rodgers, a Springfield flooring installer. "Then you have Palin, and she's only governed Alaska. And I don't think they've had too many real problems in Alaska."
Obama generates different worries. "Because of his youth and inexperience, credibility is even more of an issue for him," said Friedenberg.
Race and connections also matter. Every time she hears about Obama's dealings with long-ago radical William Ayers or controversial pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Nicole Ratliff recoils.
Normally a Democrat, she's troubled because "Obama has too much of a background. That dude, Ayers, has been in his living room."
Ayers, whom Chicago Mayor Richard Daley has lauded as a leading citizen, hosted a fundraiser for Obama in 1995 and the two served on a local school reform committee.
The charge that Obama wants to dramatically redistribute wealth also reverberates throughout the state. Obama would end 2001 and 2003 tax cuts for the wealthy, and though few of these voters would be affected, it's the thoughts that count.
"I just don't like his socialistic ideas," said Mark Winget, a Springfield groundskeeper. "If you work hard you deserve to keep what you make."
Yet he can't side with McCain. Energy supply and prices concern him, and he finds McCain saying too little about alternatives like solar energy.
Ohio will be ground zero in these final days for both campaigns. Complicating matters could be a dispute over who is eligible to vote.
The U.S. Supreme Court Friday backed the bid of Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, a Democrat, to not require voters' Social Security and drivers license numbers to match their names. An estimated 200,000 voters' information may not match, and Republicans charge Democrats could benefit from voter fraud.
The controversy gives the GOP fresh ammunition against Democrats. Palin was in the state Friday trying to woo suburban voters, and McCain is expected here Sunday.
Former Rep. Rob Portman of Ohio, a McCain friend, explained that while independent voters traditionally dislike the kind of negative attacks Palin and McCain have offered, they also like it when McCain offers comparisons with Obama on taxes, health care and everything else.
"Independent voters look hard at the differences," Portman said.
Obama is pointing out differences, too, particularly on Social Security and Medicare, a clear effort to woo the Clinton crowd.
Obama supporters, including Clinton, emphasize McCain's support for privatizing Social Security (he has suggested such accounts be a supplement to the regular program) and warn of big Medicare cuts.
Neither McCain nor Obama has specified how they plan to curb Medicare spending. The system's trustees expect it to become insolvent by 2019.
That message plays well with the Clinton crowd, but they still seem cool to Obama.
"With Clinton, you got 2 for 1, her and Bill. She had so much experience,' lamented Angus Grammatas, a Warren steelworker.
Seeing Clinton in places like Youngstown on a gray, chilly fall day helps. Kayla Beamer, a Kent State University student, voted for Clinton and considered backing McCain. Not anymore
"Obama seemed to be giving sermons rather than saying what he wanted to do," she said.
Beamer is trying to pay off student loans, carry a full course load and work as a senior aide. She wants a humming economy, so when Clinton quipped, "It took a Democrat to clean up after the first President Bush and it's going to take a Democrat to clean up after this one," it resonated.
On the other hand, only a few hundred come to these rallies, and the gym was only about one-third full. Obama, like McCain, needs help.
Mike Deoreio, a retired autoworker and Obama backer, gets that message almost daily. He put up AN Obama sign in his Youngstown yard about two weeks ago and it's been torn down or bent four times.
Deoreio won't be intimidated. "I'll keep bending the sign back and putting it right back up," he said, because on Election Day, "people are going to come around and realize McCain would just be four more years of the same."
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