COLUMBUS, Ohio — The road to the White House runs straight through Ohio, and it runs through the living rooms of voters such as Jeff Castle.
The ironworker has been a loyal Republican all his life, the kind whose votes have helped deliver the state for the party year in and year out, sending George W. Bush to the White House in 2000, and keeping him there in 2004. It was Ohio, after all, that crushed Democrat John Kerry's hopes last time.
This time, however, Castle isn't so sure, and that helps explain why Ohio could go either way in 2008. Polls, of limited value in midsummer, nevertheless show McCain and Obama neck and neck in the state.
McCain needs to hold Ohio. No Republican has ever won the White House without winning Ohio.
Obama faces his own challenges in the state. Even his supporters worry that he's underperforming in what seems likely to be a Democratic year. But if he can take Ohio's 20 electoral votes, he could be on his way to the presidency.
Recent trends in the state since Bush's 2004 win suggest movement toward the Democrats. A Democrat won the governor's office in 2006. Another defeated an incumbent Republican senator the same year.
Those elections were influenced heavily by complaints about local Republicans. Now the only drag is the way that Bush and the national Republican brand have been tarnished. The Iraq war wears on even loyal Republicans, and anxiety about the economy is rampant, even as gasoline prices recede.
"I've never voted for a Democrat in my life," said Castle, wrestling with the choices from his home in Mount Perry, a small town east of Columbus.
"Iraq is sucking the life out of America. We're spending $12 billion a month there. I can't go with someone (like McCain) who wants to stay there for a million years. Gas prices are up. Food costs are up. . . . I guess I've got to go with Obama."
Yet within minutes, Castle concedes that he doesn't like Obama, either. The key reason: The Illinois senator's long association with his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
"I can't hardly vote for him," Castle said. "I believe he's an America hater. I'm so torn, I might not vote."
That would be bad news for McCain.
Rob Matney, a real estate agent from the Columbus suburb of Gahanna, favors McCain.
"It's experience. That's the biggest thing," Matney said. A supporter of the invasion of Iraq, he now thinks it's time to start getting out. "We need to cut our losses. We've spent a lot of money. Let's get our guys out." He trusts McCain more than Obama to get the troops out safely and properly.
The Arizona senator also gets a little breathing room on the economy in some parts of the state, such as Columbus. Matney, for example, said his real estate business was slower than it once was, and his wife got laid off. Yet overall, he said, "it's not bad. It's not close to what some other cities are going through."
Head north to the suburbs of Cleveland, and it's another story.
"Our economy has gone down the tank," said Ted Stunek, a retiree from Rocky River, west of Cleveland.
"Commercial stores are closed. The Ford dealer just closed. It was there 60 years. It's tighter than a drum. Unless you're making $200,000 a year, it's just hard. After you pay your taxes and pay your bills, there's nothing left."
He's pretty sure he won't vote for McCain. "Bush deja vu," he said.
His wife interrupts to volunteer that she's for Obama, but Stunek is worried about Obama's lack of experience. "The country does need to go in a different direction," he said. "But I'm still on the fence."
No such hesitation from Vicki Balzer, a retired teacher from Berea.
"I just got another financial statement. The economy is awful. There are lots of foreclosures. People are seriously worried. We can't even begin to afford to pay for this war," she said. "We definitely need a change."
She supports Obama. But like a lot of Democrats, she thinks he should be farther ahead in Ohio.
"I wish he were doing better," she said. "Race is the 800-pound gorilla in the room. People will tell you they're for Obama, but some of them won't vote for him because of his race."
That's impossible to measure. But questions about Obama's experience, underscored by McCain ads, also could resonate.
"McCain's made some moves. Their commercials have been pretty good. They've dug into the Obama advantage," said Zach Manifold, the executive director of the Democratic Party in Franklin County, where Columbus is.
In Ohio's Democratic primary March 4, Obama did well in the Columbus area, with its highly educated, upper-income voters. He even did well in once solidly Republican suburbs such as Upper Arlington, which appear to be trending toward the Democrats. But he lost the state to Hillary Clinton by 10 points.
What's Obama's outlook statewide in November?
"Statewide it's going to be a tough race," Manifold said. "There are other swing states where he has a better shot than Ohio. I don't know how well he fits. . . . So far, he's been outspent heavily on TV. I'm waiting to see how it turns after the conventions."