HANOVERTON, Ohio — Undecided voters in this crucial swing state are torn: Can they overcome their fears about Barack Obama and vote for someone they regard as culturally "different," or will they back John McCain and the shaky status quo?
As these voters go, so could go Ohio, the most closely watched of the swing states, not only because of its 20 electoral votes, but because no one's won the White House since 1960 without winning here.
Many swing voters, who make up an estimated 4 to 11 percent of the state electorate, have recurring doubts about Obama. They say the Democratic nominee lacks experience, doesn't understand national security and is cozy with some questionable characters.
He's black, too — and though people don't often mention race, it's on many minds, most notably as people express dismay over Obama's ties to his controversial former pastor, Rev Jeremiah Wright.
Jeff Digeronimo, a Cleveland steelworker raised a Democrat, expressed all the concerns.
"I don't trust him," he said of Obama. "He's surrounded himself with too many people like Rev. Wright, and Wright is a hateful person."
Polls released Sunday told different stories about Ohio. Obama was up by 6 percentage points in the Oct. 22 to 31 Columbus Dispatch poll, but Republican John McCain led by 2 points in a Mason-Dixon Polling & Research poll taken Wednesday and Thursday.
Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University poll, which last week had Obama ahead by 9 points here, thought that a big turnout from Obama backers, notably younger voters and minorities, will make it difficult for McCain to win.
"McCain needs virtually every undecided voter in order to carry the state," he said. Obama and GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin stumped in Ohio Sunday, and Palin was scheduled to campaign again there on Monday.
Most polls list enough undecided voters that if McCain does well with late-breaking deciders, he could win. In interviews with voters across the state, it's clear that Obama hasn't yet won over big chunks of this electorate.
"I've heard he's too young and people don't like his race," said David Green, a local United Auto Workers president in Lordstown who's backing Obama.
Obama does better with swing voters in bigger cities and on college campuses, where the Iraq war tends to be more unpopular and the economy has staggered people.
"We were lied to about Afghanistan and Iraq," said Jack Walsh, a Youngstown steel hauler
"McCain and Bush are too close. Bush is doing nothing for the economy and troops are not really leaving Iraq," added Veronica Poffel, a Kent State student who's working two jobs and going to school.
But others fretted about Obama's lack of military experience. Patrick McKenzie, an unemployed retail manager from Columbus, is a "Reagan Democrat" who began voting for GOP presidential candidates in 1980.
An Army veteran, he was lured by Ronald Reagan's promise of a beefed-up defense. Because of his economic worries, McKenzie said "I like Obama in some ways," but can't get beyond his shallow national security resume.
McCain gets most of his political traction in smaller communities. Swing voters want change, but not radical change, and McCain's cry that Obama wants to share their hard-earned dollars with the less-deserving troubles many of them.
"A lot of people are going to vote for Obama because they want things, but I don't believe a lot of people are really suffering," said Bev Panezott, a Salem nurse. "And if they have, it's often of their own device. Your life is what you make it."
People in smaller communities like Hanoverton, a rural crossroads in eastern Ohio, are often offended by Washington's rescue of failed Wall Street institutions while they struggle to keep their farms afloat or hope they don't let laid off from their factory job. And they're not sure Obama, son of a black father and white mother, raised largely in Hawaii and now living in Chicago, understands people like them.
Adding to their fears are rumors that have taken on the ring of truth in these communities.
"He's a Muslim, and aren't we supposed to be fighting those people?" asked Bonnie Willard, an Eastlake administrative assistant. Obama is a Christian.
Race's role in stoking these fears is difficult to gauge, but race is on many voters' minds — and in Ohio, they're being vividly reminded of the matter by the National Republican Trust Political Action Committee, a month-old anti-Obama group unaffiliated with the official Republican Party.
The Trust is running a 30 second ad here charging "for 20 years, Barack Obama followed a preacher of hate and said nothing as (Rev. Jeremiah) Wright raged against our country."
The ad shows Wright, pastor of Obama's church for 20 years until the senator left in May after publicity over controversial church teachings, shouting "God Damn America" and other incendiary phrases.
Wright comes up a lot in small town Ohio.
Don Bandy, a Homeworth grain farmer who's voted for Democrats in the past, is troubled by what he calls Obama's constant appeals to Wright loyalists.
"Obama lies about who he is," Bandy argued. "He's half colored and half white, but he's playing the race card to appeal to blacks. It hurts him."
Karen Wovrosh, an office assistant who came to hear McCain speak in Mentor, voted for Democrat John Kerry in 2004. Asked what bothers her about Obama, Wovrosh said, "He really doesn't talk about his white side, and they're the ones who raised him."
Obama to her is a mysterious figure, and while many voters are not crazy about the Republican Party, at least McCain seems like someone they know. How many people choose comfort over change could decide how Ohio votes Tuesday.
"A lot of voters will say times are tough in Ohio and Republicans have had eight years. It's time to try something else," said Doug Nagy, manager of a Painesville non-profit firm. "But for some people, the fact that Obama is different will matter."
McClatchy Newspapers 2008