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The state that swung the presidency back to George W. Bush looks a lot like America, only poorer.

But Ohio, like the rest of Middle America, knows what it believes in. It believes in its values -- and it believes in a strong wartime president.

That's what voters told pollsters Tuesday, and it's what political scientists believe propelled Bush to a second term both in Ohio and nationwide, despite middling approval ratings and an energized opposition.

"It appears that a lot of people voted on the basis of their values," said William Angel, an associate professor at Ohio State University's campus in Lima, in rural Ohio. "And Kerry doesn't appeal to these traditional types, the Republicans and the gun-toting Democrats."

Here in a state that has lost nearly a quarter-million jobs since Bush took office, the economy ranked as the top issue among 24 percent of the voters surveyed in the exit poll commissioned by Associated Press and the networks. But "moral values" ranked second, only one percentage point behind.

Moral values ranked as the nation's top concern, ahead of the economy, terrorism and Iraq.

Political scientists said the focus on values probably cut to Bush's advantage in two ways, offsetting the passionate anti-Bush sentiment in the cities and some left-leaning suburbs.

Some undecided voters were no doubt torn between their thoughts that Democrat John F. Kerry would boost the economy and that Bush would be stronger on terrorism and Iraq.

"And the moral values issue probably had the impact of breaking the tie for some voters," said Eric Rademacher, a political scientist who publishes the widely publicized Ohio Poll at the University of Cincinnati.

Meanwhile, the values issue undoubtedly mobilized plenty of voters in rural Ohio and elsewhere, who turned out in staggering numbers to support Bush.

Kerry won Cuyahoga County, the state's largest, by a whopping 217,000 votes. He also won the state's bellwether counties, including those plagued by huge manufacturing job losses.

But none of it mattered in the face of a tidal wave of rural voters who turned out in record numbers. Though Bush won the state by only 136,483 votes (out of 5.45 million cast), he won 72 of the state's 88 counties. And in 12 of them, he won more than 70 percent of the vote.

"Bush tried to go into these pockets of Republican strength and mobilize the conservative Christian grass roots, to get people all excited," Angel said. "He also tried to strip off the heavily Catholic Democrats. And it looks like it worked."

In that way, Ohio continues its tradition of reflecting the nation at large. Both in Ohio and the nation, exit polls show that Bush won by mammoth margins among churchgoing Protestants.

And four years after splitting the Catholic vote with Democrat Al Gore, Bush beat Kerry -- a Catholic -- among that segment of voters by 5 percentage points nationwide.

The churches actively helped Bush win in Ohio, Angel said.

"Kerry's standing on abortion didn't help him among Catholics," he said. "We got strong encouragement from the pulpit to vote on the life issues."

Meanwhile, a statewide referendum banning gay marriage and civil unions -- which passed by a 3-to-2 ratio -- brought evangelical Christians to the polls in droves.

"That was the real killer," said Dianne Bennett, the Buffalo lawyer who served as Kerry's field coordinator in rural Pickaway County, which Bush won by 24 percentage points. "All the churches were out haranguing on it. . . . It was an unbelievable tactic that caught the Democrats asleep."

Ten other states had gay marriage bans on the ballot, and Bush won eight of them.

But political scientists stressed that for many voters, the "values" issue means strength of character rather than mere opposition to abortion and gay rights. And on that score, Bush won big, too.

Voters who put honesty and trustworthiness at the top of their list of character traits chose Bush by more than a 2-to-1 ratio. And voters who were most focused on the president being a strong leader picked Bush 7 to 1. "Clearly, foreign policy was a real winner for Bush," said Rademacher, of the University of Cincinnati. "People were clearly asking themselves if they wanted to change course during wartime."

Kerry tried to counter Bush's get-tough image by stressing his Vietnam War record and by donning camouflage to go hunting in the wilds of Ohio. But it didn't pay off among the state's -- or the nation's -- rural population.

Bush won nationwide among rural voters by 15 percentage points, while Kerry carried the cities by only 9 points.

Hard as he tried, Kerry couldn't shake his image as a wind-surfing East Coast elitist, said William Binning, a political scientist at Youngstown State University.

"Kerry really is from a different world" from middle America, said Binning, a Republican. "The voters could see that."

And while Kerry can take heart that he won by a 9-to-1 ratio among voters who viewed intelligence as the most important quality in a president, that didn't matter much in this values-driven election.

Only 7 percent of voters surveyed named intelligence as the most important quality in a president -- making it the seventh most important in the survey.

INSIDE: Rod Watson says four more years of the same. Page B1


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