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OHIO MIGHT HOLD KEY TO VICTORY <br> IN BELLWETHER STATE, VOTERS BALANCE WEAK ECONOMY AGAINST SOCIAL ISSUES

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the last of The Buffalo News series on the battleground states in the presidential election.
The fate of the presidency may be decided in Ohio communities like this one, a slate-gray Lackawanna look-alike filled with ramshackle factories and down-on-their-luck voters like Dan Kennedy and Danny Lazar.

Kennedy is about to lose his job, and Lazar already has lost his. Yet they remain as divided as the rest of the state and nation over whether Sen. John F. Kerry should replace President Bush in the White House.

"We're losing jobs here, but I don't think Bush is focused on that," said Kennedy, 37, who voted for Bush in 2000 but now is ready to vote for Kerry. "Bush is more in favor of helping the upper echelon make a lot of money."

Don't tell that to Lazar. He holds Bush blameless for all the job losses -- while blaming Kerry for being too weak on terror, too open to gay marriage, too far from traditional values.

"The guy's a waffler -- a two-faced creep," said Lazar, 50.

So goes the debate in what may be the most important swing state of all in a monumental presidential race that, nine days before Election Day, remains too close to call, according to the polls.

The economy ranks as the top issue for many in Ohio, which has lost 232,100 jobs during Bush's tenure.

That has resulted in a tight race in a state that Bush won by 3.6 percentage points last time. Polls show the state deadlocked, and conversations with dozens of voters in the three most closely contested areas -- Canton-Massillon, Columbus and the rural southeast -- revealed sharply conflicting views of the candidates and the economy.

The choice voters make here appears crucial. With Pennsylvania leaning toward Kerry and Florida trending toward Bush, Ohio's 20 electoral votes could be the biggest prize up for grabs on Election Day.

"In 24 of the last 26 elections, the candidate who won Ohio won the presidency," said Eric Rademacher, co-director of the Ohio Poll at the University of Cincinnati. "Now this year, there is as good a chance as any that the Ohio winner will be the national winner."

Economically, however, Ohio remains a loser. The state added jobs in recent months, but the Kerry campaign points out that, at the current rate, the state won't regain all the jobs it has lost until 2014.

Yet the unemployed aren't all rushing to Kerry, even in the Canton area, a political bellwether that has lost 6,500 jobs -- or 3.5 percent of its total -- since Bush took office.

"It's a mix," said Sharon E. Parry, executive director of the Employment Source, a government agency in Canton. "You'd think the unemployed would be with Kerry, and a lot are, but a lot of them are still going to vote for Bush because of their religious views."

Urban Catholics and rural evangelicals make up a big voting bloc here, and political pros said they may well turn out in droves on Election Day not just to vote for Bush, but to back a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

Democrats, conversely, plan a strong get-out-the-vote effort, especially in their areas of strength such as northeastern Ohio.

All across the state, however, many voters, like Nestor Sozanski, also are anxious to vote for Kerry.

"I'm Catholic, but there are moral issues other than abortion," said Sozanski, 78, a former Buffalo resident who now lives in the Columbus area. "What do you do about people who have no education? What do we do with kids who aren't fed?"

Such arguments don't get very far with voters like Anita Sheppard. She said she commutes 2 1/2 hours each way to a nursing job in Columbus, all because the economy of her hometown of Syracuse, Ohio, is so bad.

Sheppard, 43, nevertheless, won't even consider voting for Kerry.

"I don't agree with his liberal values -- especially on abortion," she said.

Ohioans appear deeply split on economic issues as well.

Kennedy, one of 1,300 Timken Co. employees likely to lose their jobs when the company closes three Canton bearings plants next year, said he was ready for a change.

"Kerry will at least make some effort at balancing the budget," said Kennedy, a father of four. "There will be more attention paid to domestic issues."

Roger Haynam of Canton, who recently lost his job at the local World Kitchen plant when the company decided to buy its products from an Asian supplier, also backs Kerry.

"I don't think it's very American to send jobs overseas," Haynam, 46, said, noting Bush hasn't done anything to prevent that.

The debate about "offshoring" stands at the center of the contest between Bush and Kerry, even though the U.S. Labor Department reported that the phenomenon was responsible for less than 1 percent of the mass layoffs nationwide last year.

While Kerry promises to close a tax loophole that gives companies a break if they move jobs overseas, Bush has been largely silent on the issue -- but that doesn't seem to trouble unemployed Canton-area residents like Lazar and Chris Paxos.

"You can't dump all these economic problems on Bush," said Lazar, who was laid off from his job as a diesel mechanic three weeks ago. "Companies have been doing this sort of thing for a long time."

Paxos is undecided in the race, largely because he thinks Bush's views on social issues are too conservative, but he likes the president's economic policies.

"I agree with the trickle-down theory," said Paxos, 26, who recently lost his sales job at a cleaning company. "I don't want the government taking any more of my money once I start making $200,000 a year."

Indeed, Kerry wants to do just that. He would raise taxes on the wealthy to help cover the cost of other small-business tax breaks and his health care program. In contrast, Bush wants to extend the huge tax breaks that Congress has approved during his first term.

Bush says those tax cuts already are boosting the economy, but whether that's true appears to depend in part on where you're standing.

Cleveland, recently ranked as the poorest city in the nation, still has crushing poverty, said Mary Taha, a social worker there.

"It's pathetic," said Taha, a Kerry supporter.

In rural Summitville in southeastern Ohio, meanwhile, David Johnson sees his family's tile manufacturing business coming back after being besieged by the economic fall-off after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and an influx of Chinese competition.

"Bush is increasing investment, putting more income in the hands of the American people," Johnson said.

Jill Ingram sees something very different. Working the counter at Bush's Family Restaurant in rural Logan, also in southeastern Ohio, not far from a lonely main street filled with empty storefronts, she sees plenty of people losing good-paying jobs at the local Goodyear and Carborundum plants.

"The economy is bad here," Ingram, 42, said of Hocking County, another political bellwether. "I think Kerry could get us back on track. . . . When Clinton was in office, we didn't have all these problems."

Seventy miles to the northwest, in the glittering Columbus suburb of Dublin, Wendy Field sees nothing but good times ahead.

Field's husband, John, owns restaurants and real estate developments across the country -- and lost plenty of business after the Sept. 11 attacks. But now Field's businesses are going strong again.

"You need to give businesses tax breaks," Field, 42, said of incentives to create jobs. "I've seen it work. We've come back up."

Two alternate-universe views of the economy can be found in the coal country of southeastern Ohio, where John D. Carr, 37, has surrounded his farmhouse with huge Bush-Cheney signs.

Carr talks about a boom in Harrison County.

"They're strip mining around here again," said Carr, a father of four and conservative Catholic who lists Bush's opposition to abortion and gay marriage as proof that his values are stronger than Kerry's. "It's amazing."

Next door, though, Jim Rune-vitch Sr., 68, sees a very different Harrison County. Most of the mines have closed, and one of the few that remains is in bankruptcy, he said.

"We definitely need a change," he said. "I don't know why it's so hard for people to see it."

Runevitch griped about his neighbor next door and his huge Bush-Cheney signs.

"They're for spite," he said.

So when Carr emerged from his home on a golden autumn afternoon, Runevitch couldn't help but taunt him.

Gesturing toward the huge Bush-Cheney signs, Runevitch said:

"I've never seen such a snow fence! That's the only thing they're good for."

Carr responded that said he was "scrapping the pallet fence" that he had long threatened to build between himself and his Democratic neighbor -- implying he would like to wall himself off with Bush-Cheney signs permanently.

Email: jzremski@buffnews.com.