Buckeye ballots could beat Bush

CLEVELAND, Ohio It all comes down to Ohio. Whoever wins the Buckeye State will win the presidency. At least, no Democrat has reached the White House without it since 1960, and no Republican ever. Unfortunately it's too close to call.

Ohio leads here by following. It doesn't set trends; rather it is a microcosm of America, except in being only 2.1-per-cent Hispanic. It was settled by northerners and southerners. It has Appalachian counties. Yet the Midwest begins at the state capital, Columbus, a spread-out city with streets wide enough to turn a wagon around. Ohio's economy suffered from the decline of manufacturing, but is being revitalized by services and higher-tech industry. And it is riddled with institutes of higher learning, from small elite schools to self-made Columbus State Community College (born humble Columbus Area Technician's School in 1963, it now grants degrees and boasts 24,000 students from 125 countries), to vast public Ohio State University, home of the Buckeyes.

As the university website admits, "It is rare for an athletic team to be named after a tree..." But it is also very American in its exuberance. The buckeye, the site explains, is aesculus glabra, a relative of the horse chestnut. But while "Before the days of plastic, buckeye wood was often used to fashion artificial limbs" and the nuts are sometimes carried for good luck or to fight rheumatism (good luck), "the trees and their nuts are of little practical use: the wood does not burn well, the bark has an unpleasant odor, and the bitter nut meat is mildly toxic. Still, the tree has grit. It grows where others cannot, is difficult to kill, and adapts to its circumstances."

Which virtues the university quickly claims for its students and staff. Quickly and typically. "Buckeye" was first used for a resident of the area that later became Ohio in 1788 when the six-foot-four Col. Ebenezer Sproat was greeted at the first Northwest Territory court session by local Indians shouting "Hetuck, Hetuck," their name for the tree. We're told they were impressed by his stature; if they thought him largely useless, that tale has not reached posterity. He and his neighbours proudly adopted the term.

Then in 1840, partisans of presidential candidate and war hero William Henry Harrison, a Virginia patrician posing as a rough-hewn, simple Westerner, showed up at the Whig Party convention with buckeye canes and strings of buckeye beads. This imaginative forerunner of the campaign button became inextricably linked with Ohio, which has produced more presidents (seven) than any other state. And today entrepreneurs market "buckeyes" of peanut butter dipped in chocolate. Very American. Like Ohio politics.

Its cities are Democrat, rural areas Republican, and the suburbs waver. It is trending Republican; 10 years ago it had two Democratic senators while today, every statewide officeholder is Republican. But all the major-city mayors are Democrats.

Columbus, birthplace of the archetypally American golfer Jack Nicklaus and so typical it was long a favoured test site for new products, is run by officials who think "progressive" is a compliment and boast of the second-highest gay population per capita in the U.S. while explicitly trying to reverse the egregious damage done to its downtown, as to so many American inner cities, by Lyndon Johnson's Great Society urban-renewal program. But the Democratic mayor of depressed steel city Youngstown just endorsed George Bush.

Folks in Ohio are patriotic and a surprising number have relatives in the military, including National Guardspersons in Iraq. They are not neoconservative nation-builders, but nor would they cut and run.

The presidential race is so close a small thing could tip it. Eric Fingerhut is currently walking the state from Cincinnati to Cleveland to demonstrate that his opponent, former governor and incumbent Republican senator George Voinovich, is out of touch. We caught up with him in a roadside ditch (hey, lots of campaigns end in one) and he conceded that, while many voters were prepared to turn against President Bush, John Kerry still had to get in there, offer visible alternatives, and "close the deal."

If November's ballot includes a citizen-initiated referendum to define marriage as one man and one woman in the state constitution, it could boost Republican turnout decisively. A Democratic voter-registration drive in the cities could do the same for them.

There's always the possibility of a telling gaffe; something dumb by President Bush, an egregious waffle by John Kerry or a self-indulgent spontaneous combustion by Teresa Heinz Kerry.

Otherwise, and barring a foreign policy surprise, it will depend on whether the sun is shining on the buckeye trees, bringing out a lot of weakly motivated but anti-incumbent voters this Nov. 2.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson