CANTON, Ohio — In this crucial battleground in campaign 2012, William Healy and Joe Halter stand on opposing sides of the great divide: How to jump-start the economy?
Healy, the Democratic mayor of Canton, recalls how, in the grim early days of 2010, when unemployment topped 13 percent, the budget was shrinking and pressures to meet payroll were mounting, his city desperately needed help. The rescue, he says, came with millions of dollars in federal funds that Canton used to repair bridges, pave streets, demolish homes, hire workers and help keep police and firefighters on the job.
"Those stimulus dollars allowed us to survive the recession," the mayor says. "Without them we would have been dead in the water."
Halter, meanwhile, is a Republican and CEO of a small steel forging company forced to cut workers during the downturn. He watched with frustration as billions of dollars were doled out to stimulus projects, drowning banks, the collapsing U.S. auto industry — and green energy companies.
"I don't know that government spending has ever really grown the economy," he says. "I don't believe in subsidies — period," Halter adds, pointing out no federal agency provided money when his business struggled. (It has since rebounded and added workers.) He prefers tax cuts and less regulation.
The debate over how big government should be and how much it should do is a common theme in this campaign, but it has special resonance in this pivotal state, where many hail the auto bailout as a catalyst in Ohio's recovery. It also raises larger economic questions about which direction and which candidate offer the best hope for more progress.
Will voters focus on the revitalized auto industry and unemployment below the U.S. average and regard President Barack Obama as the architect of a hopeful but not yet robust economy? Or will they see government as an obstacle, hundreds of thousands of people still out of work and look to Mitt Romney for the answers?
"Each side is selling a portrait," says James Brock, an economics professor at Miami University in Ohio. "For Obama, it's, 'Look, things are getting better, stick with me.' For Romney, it's, 'Things will be a lot better if you switch to me.' Where does the electorate go? Will they stick with what seems to be working or jump to something that might work better?"
The answer could determine who captures Ohio's 18 all-important electoral votes — and wins the White House.
Ohio was once synonymous with steel and rubber, a land of roaring blast furnaces that filled the night sky with smoke and flames. The state was home to generations of blue-collar workers who streamed through plant gates with clockwork precision every morning.
The era when Goodyear, Firestone and LTV dominated the Ohio landscape is long gone. Ohio has lost more than 368,000 manufacturing jobs since 2000.
But heavy industry still has an enormous presence. There are autos in Lordstown (General Motors), Toledo (Chrysler), Marysville (Honda) and Cleveland (Ford). There's steel in Youngstown and Lorain (and elsewhere). There are polymer companies making car parts, specialty tires, bowls, wall fabric, paint and more in Akron, the former rubber capital. There are medical hubs in Columbus, Cincinnati and Cleveland. There's farming across the state. And there's a natural gas boom in eastern Ohio, driving demand for steel parts used in drilling.
Politically, the state is as diverse as the nation:
The industrialized, union-friendly Northeast, and Democratic-dominated cities ringed by Republican-ruled suburbs with Christian evangelicals and soccer moms. Small towns and rural stretches between Dayton and Toledo running up western Ohio that go Republican. And hard-scrabble Appalachian communities among the hills and rivers of the southern and eastern tier that have Democratic roots but can swing Republican because of conservative social views.
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