For Rom­ney, road to White House runs through Rust Belt

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY SETH MCLAUGH­LIN

BRUNSWICK, Ohio | Mitt Rom­ney is try­ing to do some­thing that Sen. John McCain, the Repub­li­can Party’s 2008 pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee, could not — shore up enough sup­port among the ru­ral, blue-col­lar vot­ers in such Rust Belt states as Penn­syl­va­nia and Ohio to win the White House.

The former Mas­sachusetts gov­er­nor chased af­ter those vot­ers over the Fa­ther’s Day week­end as part of a six-state bus tour in which he bought a meat­ball hoagie at a gas sta­tion out­side Philadel­phia. He also tested the ax­iom that the way to a per­son’s heart is through his stom­ach by serv­ing pan­cakes to hun­gry vot­ers in Cleve­land sub­urbs.

Along with Florida, Ohio and Penn­syl­va­nia are the elec­toral bat­tle­grounds that an­a­lysts say have been the key to the past three elec­tions. If Repub­li­cans can win two of the three, they should find their path to the White House.

Ohio tra­di­tion­ally has been the eas­ier win for the GOP among those two North­ern states, but new polling putting Mr. Rom­ney within strik­ing dis­tance in Penn­syl­va­nia has Repub­li­cans think­ing they might be able to sweep all three.

Christo­pher P. Bor­rick, a po­lit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor at Muh­len­berg Col­lege in Al­len­town, Pa., said Repub­li­cans dom­i­nated the 2010 elec­tions in Penn­sylva- nia and the party has been able to re­verse some of the losses in party reg­is­tra­tion it ex­pe­ri­enced at the end of the past decade.

“I think that Rom­ney has some po­ten­tial to make some head­way among sub­ur­ban Philadel­phia vot­ers who are fis­cally con­ser­va­tive and not very en­am­ored with the pres­i­dent’s per­for­mance on the econ­omy and bud­get mat­ters,” Mr. Bor­rick said.

The blue-col­lar Rust Belt re­gion has al­ways been skep­ti­cal of Mr. Obama. He lost those vot­ers to Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton in the 2008 Demo­cratic pri­mary race af­ter fa­mously call­ing such vot­ers in Penn­syl­va­nia “bit­ter,” say­ing “they cling to guns or re­li­gion or an­tipa­thy to peo­ple who aren’t like them, or anti-im­mi­grant sen­ti­ment, or anti-trade sen­ti­ment, as a way to ex­plain their frus­tra­tions.”

The words about im­mi­gra­tion might have been fore­shad­ow­ing this year’s elec­tion. Mr. Obama an­nounced June 15 that he was halt­ing de­por­ta­tions of most young il­le­gal aliens. How that plays in Ohio and Penn­syl­va­nia could be crit­i­cal to de­ter­min­ing the pres­i­dent’s re-elec­tion.

“It makes me fu­ri­ous,” Denise Paolucci, a 52-year-old nurse from Ravenna, Ohio, said at the Brunswick event. She said that il­le­gal aliens from Mex­ico tried to kid­nap her two grand­daugh­ters.

“Why should our chil­dren be put aside for il­le­gal im­mi­grants, and our grand­kids?” said Cheryl Good­son, a 64-year-old from Brunswick.

But for Mr. Rom­ney, the is­sue is com­pli­cated as he tries to ce­ment his sup­port among con­ser­va­tives in this part of the coun­try who op­pose any­thing they deem to be amnesty, even as he tries to nar­row Mr. Obama’s large lead with His­panic vot­ers else­where.

He and his aides re­peat­edly dodged di­rect ques­tions over the June 16-17 week­end about whether the nom­i­nee would over­turn Mr. Obama’s di­rec­tive, in­stead say­ing they want to work on a broad im­mi­gra­tion so­lu­tion.

De­spite the dis­rup­tion, Mr. Rom­ney stuck with the ba­sic stump speech that helped power him through the bruis­ing GOP pri­mary con­tests. At var­i­ous cam­paign stops, he said Mr. Obama has failed to de­liver on the “hope and change” he promised four years ago and now just wants to change the sub­ject.

“The peo­ple of Amer­ica rec­og­nize that whether you think he’s a nice guy or you don’t think he’s a nice guy, one thing you know is he’s been a dis­ap­point­ment. He hasn’t got­ten this econ­omy go­ing the way he said he would,” Mr. Rom­ney said at a cam­paign stop in Cromwell, Pa., on June 16.

He re­peated the mes­sage all week­end be­fore vow­ing to fos­ter a health­ier eco­nomic en­vi­ron­ment by re­peal­ing the pres­i­dent’s health care over­haul, re- duc­ing fed­eral reg­u­la­tions and ex­pand­ing en­ergy pro­duc­tion, in par­tic­u­lar by build­ing a pipe­line from Canada to the Gulf Coast that Mr. Obama has de­layed and which en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists in the Demo­cratic base op­pose ab­so­lutely.

While polls show Mr. Obama lead­ing slightly in Penn­syl­va­nia and Ohio, both cam­paigns are mak­ing th­ese states pri­or­i­ties.

Mr. Obama for­mally launched his cam­paign here and re­turned to Cleve­land two weeks ago for a high-pro­file eco­nomic speech that his cam­paign cast as a chance to stem the flow of bad news that fol­lowed the most re­cent jobs re­port, which showed that the na­tional un­em­ploy­ment rate ticked up to 8.2 per­cent.

His­tory sug­gests that Ohio is a must-win for Mr. Rom­ney: No Repub­li­can ever has won the pres­i­dency with­out win­ning the Buck­eye State.

Ge­orge W. Bush won the state in 2000 and 2004, de­feat­ing Al Gore and John F. Kerry of Mas­sachusetts, re­spec­tively. Mr. Obama turned the tide here by win­ning the state in 2008.

The po­lit­i­cal dy­namic, though, is fur­ther com­pli­cated by the state’s un­em­ploy­ment rate hav­ing dropped con­sis­tently over the past year. Last year, Democrats showed their po­lit­i­cal mus­cle by pass­ing a ref­er­en­dum that re­versed a law backed by Mr. Rom­ney that would have cur­tailed col­lec­tive-bar­gain­ing rights for 360,000 pub­lic em­ploy- ees.

Mr. Rom­ney has some heav­ier lift­ing to do in Penn­syl­va­nia, where no Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial hope­ful has won since Ge­orge H.W. Bush cap­tured it in 1988. Ob­servers, though, say the po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment has shifted dra­mat­i­cally dur­ing the first term of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Stu­art Stevens, a top Rom­ney ad­viser, said the elec­tion will be a ref­er­en­dum on Mr. Obama’s han­dling of the econ­omy and that his boss has an op­por­tu­nity to make in­roads with more mid­dle-class vot­ers who have fallen on tough times.

“Ev­ery re-elec­tion is an MRI of the pres­i­dent’s record, and it is hard to find any­body who voted for McCain who is plan­ning to vote for Obama, and there is a very large group of peo­ple out there who voted for Obama who are open to vot­ing for Mitt Rom­ney,” he said.

Asked to hand­i­cap the race, Jim Schick, of Conneaut, Ohio, pre­dicted that Mr. Rom­ney will win his state be­cause young vot­ers are not as ex­cited as they were about Mr. Obama in 2008 and be­cause the econ­omy has put many mid­dle-class and in­de­pen­dent-minded vot­ers up for grabs.

“I think it is go­ing to be those four or five more un­em­ploy­ment re­ports that come out, and I think that is go­ing to be the big­gest thing in this elec­tion,” the 52-year-old said.

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